Tales from the Borderlands Episode 1 – Zer0 Sum

I consider myself a fan of the Borderlands games. In particular, the games’ setting, Pandora, is a heady pastiche of surreal humor and ultra-violence, with loads of potential to tell great stories. Unfortunately, the mainstream games in the Borderlands series only go skin-deep into the setting, and the plot, while full of great characters, takes a backseat to the frenetic gunplay and the ever-present fountains of arterial blood and explosions. The Borderlands 2 DLCs, particularly the excellent Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, try to provide some character depth, but the world still remained a largely undeveloped cipher for the more important shooty elements.

Enter Telltale Games. These maestros are responsible for the Walking Dead adventure games which are pretty much close to the pinnacle of contemporary gaming in terms of story. Their products are less games than interactive adventures with strong stories and the illusion of player choice. Their more well known creations of the recent past have been somber and tragic, but they return to their comedic roots with the new Tales of the Borderlands series, and boy, do they deliver.

This first episode of Tales of the Borderlands is a good start to a Borderlands game that is more about the story than the gameplay, and Telltale Games manages to capture the frontier, wacky spirit of Pandora almost pitch-perfectly, while putting some of their distinctive branding into it. The narrative focuses not on the overpowered vault hunters of Gearbox’s three FPS releases in the franchise, but relatively more down-to-earth characters with motivations that can be shaped, to some degree, by the player. For the first time, Pandora feels like a place people actually live in, as opposed to a theme park of walking, easily-ruptured sacks of viscera.

While a Telltale game in truth, it is also a lot more fun to play than The Walking Dead, which, by virtue of its setting and circumstance, required the player to make painful and agonizing moral choices. In Tales of the Borderlands, the player characters are largely amoral (though likable) bastards. One is a power-hungry suit in the world’s most evil corporation and the other is a con-artist. These characters are motivated by their baser desires, and although you could play them a little more straight if you wanted, it’s more fun to choose the most ridiculous sounding conversation option and watch everything unfold into chaos. But as ridiculous as these options may be, they are always appropriate to the context of the plot, and have real dramatic payoffs.

I took about two hours to play this first episode. The first episode is a pretty standalone adventure, and its narrative arc is self-contained. It feels like a good first movie in an expanding franchise, and I applaud Telltale for resisting the temptation to end it on a cliffhanger. However, it certainly opens up the way to the following episodes, which are slated to come out in two-month intervals.

Tales of the Borderlands demonstrates Telltale’s uncanny aptitude at creating spinoffs that add to the richness of the original franchises by filling out the lesser-explored interstices of their world-settings. I heartily look forward to more blood-and-guts-with-a-dose-of-heart action.

I give Tales of the Borderlands Episode 1 – Zer0 Sum 4.5 out of 5 Vault Keys

+ Great self-contained introduction to the season
+ Captures Pandora perfectly
+ Great characters, hilarious campy villains

– Ended far too quickly
– Can explore Pandora more
– Handsome Jack is overused. Let it go, already. (subject to reevaluation if future episodes find a good way to use the character)

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part 1)

I have to admit, Francis Lawrence has pulled the same trick on me twice now. Last year, I watched Catching Fire in cinemas with low expectations, and was pleasantly surprised at how good the movie was. Last night, I watched Mockingjay (Part 1) not expecting much either. I was again impressed.

What was I impressed with? It wasn’t the plot or themes. In these two movies, Lawrence has proved himself adept at creating atmosphere. By “atmosphere”, I mean painting the cinematic canvas with elements designed to evoke strong visceral feelings in the viewer at the appropriate junctures. Since a large part of the films is really about spectacle and propaganda, the atmospheric qualities of the movies arise both of the plot – which is about making propaganda, as well as a more formal element of cinematic technique. The irony, of course, is that these two different atmospheric movements work at deliberate cross-purposes with each other. The spectacle and propaganda are carefully engineered to evoke specific positive responses, but the film itself employs techniques to muddy that message to the viewer. The whole idea of District 13 being the freedom fighters to the Capitol’s decadence and tyranny is subverted into a more ambiguous and uncertain picture, in which District 13 proves to be the Capitol’s equal in producing calibrated messaging to manipulate the people’s emotions, to get them to fight. This tension permeates the entire film and contributes to much of its emotional power, and serves to underscore the point that Katniss, and her image, are commodities – to be roughly used by whoever owns her body and soul.

The film has some brilliant moments – Katniss and Gale’s excursion, Katniss’ rendition of the Hanging Tree song, the post-bombing and the white roses. They are intensely atmospheric, a credit to the music, acting, and cinematographic techniques employed. They also give the film some depth because they are juxtaposed against the broader narrative of war; quiet moments side-by-side to scenes of violence and depravity, real moments against the manufactured propaganda – but aren’t these moments, in the end, propos as well? They are all appropriated to create propaganda videos that cause hundreds and thousands of rebels to lose their lives in a struggle that has no end in sight.

One more point – not reading the books helps. One of the things I’ve slowly begun to come to terms with is that if you don’t want your enjoyment of a fictive world ruined, stick to one mode of media. Don’t read a book and watch its film or TV adaptation (reading books and watching movies that are set in the same universe, but with different narratives, is okay). Or vice versa, watch the film version and don’t read the book. It’s hard to resist the temptation to see your favorite book characters or scenes on the silver screen, but ultimately it sets a strong visual precedent in your mind that conflicts with your already existing mental picture of the narrative. I’ve found that more often than not, that ruins the source material for me. Of course, that’s probably not going to stop me from watching more adaptations.

I give The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 3.5 out of 5 Mockingjays

+ Intensely atmospheric
+ Wonderful performances by Jennifer Lawrence and others
+ Meta-propaganda theme

– Panem society seems oddly structured – if they blew up their mining district, who’s going to mine for them? Did they blow up just the one town or the entire region? (Not having read the books I’m not sure how this works)
– Slow at times
– Peeta and Gale as proxies for Katniss’ vulnerabilities is a little teen-romancey

Thinking, Fast and Slow

This is a gem of a book. Thinking, Fast and Slow is an engaging and valuable guide to the discipline of behavioral economics and the associated psychological models that seek to explain why we as humans process and act on information the way we do. It is the product of Kahneman’s lifetime of work on the field, which earned him a Nobel Prize in economics, and it shows. A book of this caliber doesn’t come out very often.

The book’s merits don’t only rest on Kahneman’s academic pedigree, however. It is possible to be a Nobel-award winning academic and still be terrible at writing anything that isn’t a highly abstracted academic paper. What Kahneman has done here is to expend conscious effort into making the subject engaging and accessible to the everyday reader. I particularly like how he relates the concepts he expounds to his own personal experiences in life and academia, as well as the little vignettes he includes at the end of each chapter to highlight how they might work if people used them in everyday conversation (cf. “This is an availability cascade: a nonevent that is inflated by the media and the public until it fills our TV screens and becomes all anyone is talking about.”) Kahneman’s voice is the voice of a teacher, and it shines through in his work.

I suppose there’s some sort of affective association at work here, however, given that the subject matter lends itself very well to the feeling that one gets from reading the book that there is immense wisdom and self-improvement value to be found within its pages. Kahneman’s authorial voice lends him a mental image of the affable professor who cares most not for his work but for the edification of his students. His book is more than a guide to his work, it seeks to inform readers of the common pitfalls in peoples’ thinking and decision-making processes, and avoid them to seek better life outcomes: wealth, security, happiness. And if that isn’t one definition of wisdom, what is?

Another part of why this book is so valuable is because it lends empirical weight and materiality to our common lived experiences. As we get older we learn to identify cognitive biases in other peoples’ behavior, but often these are vague and not well-formulated. And more often than not we fail to perceive biases in our own thinking. The book takes these intuitions and structures them into easy-to-identify concepts, and in doing so makes them testable and falsifiable. In the book’s own parlance, it takes the vague associations and intuitions that we accrue in System 1 and forces us to take a step back and consider them from a more rigorous System 2 perspective. When these intuitions get legitimized through experimentation into empirically-backed features of human cognition, they become independent concepts that can be employed to test for less intuitive and more surprising hypotheses. One example the book makes is that it was hypothesized that loss aversion – people being more sensitive to a loss than they would be to an equivalent gain – meant that pro golfers would try harder to go for par to avoid a bogey than to try for a birdie, since they would rather not underperform than overperform. This hypothesis was tested – and it validated, or I should say, failed to invalidate, loss aversion. Loss aversion explains other things that are not readily obvious – such as why taxi drivers tend to work shorter hours in the rain than in dry weather, or why inexperienced investors tend to sell well-performing stocks and hold onto poorly performing ones. The true value of formalizing these would-be “common wisdom” intuitions into psychological theory is so that these hidden associations can be tested, which has great utility in public policy and other fields.

In any case, this is a rare must-read. It’s not just a book that makes interesting observations about the world, it is a book that teaches people how to avoid cognitive biases in their everyday decision-making; its lessons backed by sober, tested science. That’s not to say that Kahneman’s theories and models are perfect; he himself admits that there continue to be things that his models cannot explain properly or fail to predict. But the book itself makes a good case for being the first step in the codification of that nebulous concept called ‘wisdom’.

I give this book: 5 out of 5 overconfident stock market predictions

+ Accessible, readable, engaging
+ Tremendous self-improvement value
+ Good summary of Daniel Kahneman’s tremendous oeuvre

– Not completely consistent; the last few chapters could be a little more developed
– Chapters on prospect theory may be a bit heavy for non-economics majors
– Some thought experiments require a bit of puzzling to understand, especially for people without prior exposure to behavioral economics

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is the latest offering in Disney’s stable of Pixar-esque animated movies. It also benefits from the agglomeration effect of Disney’s ownership of multiple IPs; the movie is based on a Marvel Comics series with which it shares a name but scarcely little else (not that that’s a bad thing or anything).

Disney is a consummate master at mass-producing high-quality animated fare for reviewers and moviegoers alike, and Big Hero 6 is no exception to this rule. The movie ticks all the boxes: likable, spunky protagonists, memorable sidekicks, stunning and well-crafted visuals, all-ages humor, and a dash of tragedy and pathos, wrapped up in a shiny, easily-consumable narrative package. This formula is blended to near-perfection by Disney’s stellar assortment of well-managed talent.

Except that it’s starting to become, well, a formula. It’s a relatively safe movie that plays to all of Disney’s strengths and avoids most of its weaknesses. Narratively, however, it’s almost painfully predictable, using bait-and-switch who’s-the-real-villain tricks that have somehow become a staple of Disney flicks (Frozen, Iron Man 3, etc). It’s neither particularly innovative nor daring from a narrative standpoint. As an origin-story superhero flick, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. And of course, it’s finely calculated to leave ample space for the inevitable sequels to come.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Disney. As far as tentpole movies are concerned, there is no entertainment conglomerate that can beat Disney at dishing out great cinematic fare. However, I’d like to see something more narratively daring get made as part of Disney’s own animated pantheon. Something that contains the spark of a Ratatouille or a Toy Story 3 (yes, I know Pixar is owned by Disney; I’m referring to films made by Disney Animation Studios). I think that Disney’s big enough and has enough brand power to make movies that are more experimental.

That said, Big Hero 6 is a great franchise starter, not least because its setting is so profoundly inspired. San Fransokyo, the movie’s setting, is a fusion of San Francisco’s unique bayside environment and Tokyo’s density and architecture. This marriage creates a superhero city on par with the likes of Gotham and Metropolis, an urban mythos with its own texture and history. Word has it that Disney spared no expense in creating San Fransokyo, by purchasing detailed property data from the city’s Assessor-Recorder Office and modeling the entire city down to the individual block. Although the picture of a futuristic San Francisco is perhaps a little too optimistic; I wonder what the Tenderloin or Bayview-Hunters Point equivalents would look like in this otherwise shiny techno-utopia. And the public transport system featured in the movie, with its elevated monorails that crisscross the financial district, is a bit of a step up from what San Francisco is likely to offer even in fifty years.

That said, the movie captured the twin essences of San Francisco and Tokyo perfectly (well, the good parts at least), San Francisco slightly more so. For SF: the rolling hills, the ever-present fog drifting in the Pacific, the Victorians at Haight with their attractive cafes, the cable cars, the Ferry Terminal, and the vitality of the tech scene (although socially productive in this case), albeit with nary a hobo or druggie in sight. Tokyo: the gleaming skyscrapers, the countless neon signs with real Japanese words in them, the little hole-in-the-wall ramen restaurants with their noren curtains, the hip-and-gable roof styles so characteristic of Japanese architecture, and the dense public transit network. The fusion is so inspired and well-realized it deserves another spin in a sequel, or perhaps as a setting in an open-world video game.

And one last thing: Diversity! How often are Asian characters portrayed so positively in movies? Hiro Hamada has an American accent and is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from his different-colored friends in terms of language, culture and habits, but he is indubitably Asian. He’s a nerd, sure, but so is everyone else in the movie. And he uses his brains to kick ass! Asians, especially males, have occupied a place in American cinema that robs them of some degree of agency. They’re often either portrayed as risible weirdos or exoticized as kung-fu wow-pow masters with a slippery command of grammatical English. I see Big Hero 6 as another expression of Disney’s very laudable desire to bring some cinematically-challenged groups into the spotlight in a way that is unabashedly positive, like what they did with The Princess and the Frog. Here’s to more movies that portray Asian characters as unabashed heroes without all the baggage that comes with Asian cinematic stereotypes.

So, onto the judgement:

I give this movie: 4 out of 5 kabuki masks

+ Inspired setting
+ Positive portrayal of Asian characters and “nerd” culture
+ A typically competent Disney production

– Narratively unambitious, predictable plot
– Villain’s motivations are questionable
– Feels calculated to be an origin story (although, if it doesn’t spawn sequels, I reserve the right to refrain from eating my own hat)

Best Served Cold

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No mincing words: this was a dark and bloody read, and in my view, a shade too dark and bloody. Strengths first, the chief one being that it’s a well-plotted novel, with enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing on the way to Orso’s palace. There were some genuinely colourful and amusing characters, from the protagonists, Monza and Shivers, to the accessories, like Friendly, Morveer, and Nicomo Cosca. I’ll admit to quite liking the latter two as comic diversions. I’ll admit, too, to liking some of the other humour, dark as it was (especially the bit when Shivers, over the course of a few pages, swears about science, magic and banking, declaring each to be worse than the other and ending up in a closed circular loop that you need to be at least slightly awake to pick up).

Unfortunately pretty much all the characters in the book qualify as scumbags of some order or the other. Only Monza appears to have redemptive qualities, even though of course she only turns out to become Styria’s foremost murderer by the end of the book. Shivers only gets darker and darker as the book wears on; having half his face and one of his eyes painfully burned out is a fairly unsubtle way of signalling character transformation. I also did not enjoy the repeated and unnecessarily bloody battle scenes, finding myself yearning to skim a good chunk of them.

Verdict: Read if you like reasonably well-plotted fantasy, and don’t mind blood. Lots of blood. More blood than George R. R. Martin. Not to mention repeated observations about the futility of vengeance, even though the entire book happens to be about just that. Now if you merely want to read good fantasy, and with few caveats, I’d suggest you direct your attentions towards Brandon Sanderson, whose works are infinitely less depressing and just as well-plotted, if not better.

I give this book: 3 Flying Swords (out of 5)

Interstellar

Interstellar is an important film. It is a film that champions the proposition that humankind’s place is among the stars, and such films are rare. It is also a film that emphasizes scientific fidelity, and such films, too, are few and far between. In this sense, it operates in stark contrast to Alfonso Cuaron’s magisterial Gravity, which portrayed space as a yawning, inhospitable void and Earth as sanctuary, the culmination and dramatic reward of one woman’s will to live. While Interstellar does not shy away from the dangers of exploration, the hazards of the cosmos are not something to be feared but embraced as necessary risks to ensure humanity’s continued survival. This mode is unique among Hollywood science fiction, in which space, the yawning blackness, is the womb of unimaginable horrors a la Alien or Event Horizon.

In Interstellar, space is given a more balanced portrayal. It is a place of stark and deadly beauty, of almost unimaginable majesty and mystery. And that is precisely the right cornucopia of ingredients that serves to whet the appetites of the explorers in us. The majesty of space is enhanced by Hans Zimmer’s excellent score, which is particularly commendable as a polyphony of mythic and portentous arrangements that fills the silent void of the endless cosmic night with a creditable impression of the melodies of superstrings.

It’s an important film, but also a flawed one. The central theme of love transcending time and space was hackneyed (for a better interpretation of that particular trope, see Contact). The decisions and actions of certain characters are at times illogical in order to drive the three-hour narrative forward. Some of the film’s setpieces, such as the Indian Air Force drone chase and the misadventure on the giant-wave planet, were, while visually arresting in and of themselves, out of place with the main narrative. And for all of Kip Thorne’s pains to ensure scientific fidelity, not least by spending tremendous amounts of time and effort simulating what a supermassive black hole might look like, the plot was resolved by the distressingly unscientific phlebotinum of “quantum data” needed to plug into an equation to solve the disjoint between relativity and quantum theory – a scientific problem that has plagued physicists for decades and led to the invention of new forms of mathematics – solved in fifteen minutes with a Morse code sequence communicated through the fifth dimension by gravity waves influencing the ticking of a pocket watch (don’t ask).

I was also troubled by how the journey to escape Earth seemed so America-centric. The giant space station orbiting Saturn at the end was just a floating piece of American farmland – where are the Chinese, the Arabs, the Canadians (I guess Prof. Brand was British)? Did they leave them on Earth to get suffocated by the blight? A critical piece of the vision of space is the dissolution of petty national boundaries – and this film is distressingly parochial by modern cinematic standards. At least the black guy wasn’t the first to die.

But it’s a creditable successor to the kinds of films that serve, to some extent, as space-exploration propaganda, like Contact before it. I would say it is perhaps the spiritual sequel to Contact, in its message, themes, and undertones. And Matthew McConaughey is in both movies, which makes the connection even more uncannily apt (is McConaughey our new Space Prophet?)

Anyway, here goes:

I give this movie: 4 Rotating Spaceships

+ Important piece of pro-exploration propaganda
+ Viscerally beautiful, majestic
+ Sublime score

– Odd plot inconsistencies
– A flawed emotional core
– Minor bloat issues