Re-Review: Payday: The Heist

2011 was a great year for gaming.  It was a year when the industry began to move away from the AAA blockbuster or bust model, and move towards publishing smaller, inexpensive titles while at the same time putting out some of the best titles of the decade.  The first-person shooter was undergoing some growing pains as it transitioned away from  an environment stuffed full of self-serious, overly-dramatic, grey-brown shooters and Overkill Software’s Payday: The Heistfelt like a breath of fresh air, at least to me.

Payday: The Heist  is an online, multiplayer co-op shooter centering around a gang of criminals fending off increasingly large waves of cops as they attempt to steal shit, get away, and get paid.  The 4-player co-op model was built off of previous successes such as Gears of War‘s Horde mode, and Valve’s Left 4 Dead franchise.  What made Payday unique, at the time, was the way it committed to translating heist genre elements into gameplay.  The game contained a large variety of scores, from stealth-focused diamond heists, to classic Heat-style bank robbers, to exciting smash and grabs.  It was a modest success at the time, and the game has been mostly abandoned by the player base for Payday 2, so the question is: how does Payday: The Heist hold up after all those years?

Pretty well as it turns out.

20170531202131_1
Not Pictured: My flawless, no-kill diamond heist

During my time with the game I was easily able to slip into my old loadouts and play-styles, as well as strategies for the various heists (no doubt Overkill’s inclusion of original heists into Payday 2 helped out).  The shooting feels as responsive as ever, and the game retains much of charm and high energy that it had six years ago.  One thing in particular I noticed was how well the in-game UI aged.  Allies, enemies and objectives are highlighted by having their outlines visible to the player at all times, which is useful when planning out your heist, keeping track of your allies during a firefight, and ensuring that your tools work properly.  Many of the mechanics remained intact for the sequel, a testament to the quality and polish of the original design.

What has not aged well, however, is the menu design.  Payday: The Heist’s main menu is ugly as sin.  The text is barely legible against the blurry, action shot oriented background, and selecting menu options has no tangible feedback.  Same goes for selecting guns, abilities, and maps.  Everything blends together, and it is sometimes hard to tell what you’ve changed, or if you’ve changed anything in the lead up to a match.  In addition the AI companions are useless, a not unexpected discovery.  They don’t get in your way, but can’t really be counted on to do much of anything except act as bullet sponges.

20170531210435_1

My partner in crime for the evening had never played the game before, and as such I also got to see how the game played for someone new to game.  Overall the game still appears approachable to new players, but it suffers from a lack of explanation on casing features and the escalation of assault waves at times feels random (though to be fair one would imagine that 20+ dead cops in two minutes would actually require a much more violent and swift response in reality).  We also struggled with one of the games escort missions, when our target’s outline faded and we forgot to take him to an extraction point, though this did lead to one of those fun moments where my partner held off an assault wave by himself while I dragged the target uphill in gunfire.

20170531204751_1
Also hope you like watching this meter fill up.  Three times.

Overall Payday: The Heist still holds up, even if it is rough around the edges.  It is still as capable of creating those exciting, nail-biting moments now as in 2011, even if the games polish has faded over the years.

Payday: The Heist is rated M and costs $14.99 on Steam.

Stress Relief Gaming: Stardew Valley

My last gaming post featured one of my favorite games for stress relief: Slime Rancher. There’s been a few updates to the game since my post, but if you haven’t seen it it’s still worth checking out. (You can find it here.) Today, I’m gonna tell you about another de-stresser of mine that I just recently got in to: Stardew Valley.

I love shooters and RPGs just as much as the next person. But sometimes I just don’t feel like dealing with it, you know? Sometimes, I don’t wanna sit down and play Civilization where unless I’m at my top game I’m gonna get my ass handed to me. I don’t wanna play a strategy game like Fire Emblem because it’s time consuming and strategy games are not easy on the brain. So that said, I think it’s important to highlight games that are not so much about winning as they are about working toward a goal.

Stardew Valley is, at its core, a farming game. But it’s so much more than that simply because of how much content there is, and the variety of things that you can do within the game. The thing I appreciate about Stardew Valley most is the fact there’s not a “right” way to play the game, or a certain order you have to go in to advance. The game is set up so that you wake up at 6am every morning, and what you do from 6am to 2am (when your character will pass out if you don’t get them into bed) is entirely your business. You wanna fish all day? Great. You wanna mine all day? Sure. Water plants and chop down trees? You do you. Hey, there’s an event today. You wanna go? No? Okay, catch you later bro. There’s so much to do, but basically none of it is forced. So now to introduce you, let me take you on a little tour of my farm.

20170317131936_1

This is the character/farm creation screen. It is just as important as your character creation screen in your favorite RPG, if not more because which farm you pick will also guide your game experience and farm layout. You have your choice of creating a male or female character, naming them, and selecting their outfit. There are dozens upon dozens of choices for each aspect of your character, meaning you can spend quite awhile on character creation. The right panel gives you a selection of 5 different farm types that will accentuate one of the various skills you can foster in the game. The first farm with the red house is best for a farming focus, the second farm best for a fishing focus, the third farm best for a foraging focus, the fourth farm best for a mining focus, and the last farm where “monsters come out at night” is best for a combat focus. There’s no “best” farm for beginners, so feel free to choose whichever farm calls to you–though I will say that, personally, I don’t want to deal with monsters at my farm and spend a lot of time outside at night, so I’d personally not recommend the last farm to first time players looking to relax.

Selecting an animal preference will determine what animal you choose to adopt later in the game. When your pet reaches maximum affection, the game will notify you that “So-and-so loves you.” Isn’t that precious?

I decided to go with the third farm with a foraging focus.

So here’s the setup: the game opens with an adorable grandpa writing to his grandson/granddaughter (that would be your character) from his deathbed. He tells them that there will come a day when they are weary of the world and all the pitfalls of modern (consumerist, corporate) life. On that day, open the letter that he’s enclosed with this note. The game then shows an office with “Joja Mart” and their slogan “Thrive” plastered on a long line of dismal, blue-grey cubicles. Nameless little people are clacking away on their keyboards, staring at their computers mindlessly. The camera eventually pans to your character, staring sadly. A little teardrop appears over their head to express their utter misery. You then go through the motions of opening up the desk drawer, opening Grandpa’s letter, and finding the deed to a farm in Stardew Valley. Your character then leaves their job to start their new life as a farmer.

So here’s what my farm, the un-creatively-named “Verdant Farm,” looks like 3 in-game years later:

20170317132250_1

So that’s my little farmhouse behind my character. If you look in the top right corner, you can see the time of day, the date and day of the week, the season, and the weather in the first box. Below that, you have your current funds as well as the exclamation mark which is how you access your journal, where the game encourages you to complete certain tasks for monetary rewards. The weather changes day by day and has differing effects on the world around you; certain fish only come out on rainy days in spring, for example. Also when it rains, there’s no need to manually water your crops. The day of the week is also an important feature that helps lend the game a certain semblance of reality. “The Queen of Sauce” re-runs, which teach your character to cook, only run on Wednesdays and Sundays. Pierre’s General Store, which will be the main source of your seeds until you’re able to craft a seed maker and other cooking/farming essentials, is not open on Wednesdays.

There’s tons of features to this game, and I’ll try not to inundate you with too many specifics. I think it’s safe to say that if it’s been in a farming game before, it’s in this one. The last thing I’ll mention specifically is what sets this game apart from other farming games: the friendship/romance component.

20170317133724_1

Your character can develop a relationship with basically everyone that lives in town. Each character has a set of loved, liked, neutral, disliked, and even (god forbid) hated gifts that you can give to them which either increase or decrease your friendship level with them. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try and figure them out for yourself. If you’re lazy and afraid of rejection like me, you can find all of a character’s likes and dislikes on their wiki page. You’re allowed to give each character two gifts per week. You get extra friendship points if you give someone a gift on their birthday; the calendar in town will tell you whose birthday is when.

When you get a high enough friendship with people, you can trigger a special cutscene that will give you some personal insight into that character. For instance, I walked into Emily’s house when he had four friendship hearts and found her dreaming about me.

Though you can bond with everyone in town in some way, there are only twelve characters available to romance. The plus side is that ALL TWELVE of these characters are bisexual–meaning it doesn’t matter if your avatar is male or female, you can marry whoever you want.

It’s such a small feature, but it’s so amazing considering the amount of games that restrict (or completely ignore) same-sex relationships. I’ve been playing a lot of Fire Emblem lately and I cannot tell you how frustrating it is that there is only one (if any) gay option in them. And only for the avatar character. There are so many characters that would work infinitely better if they were allowed to be gay in those games. But luckily, that is not a problem in this game.

The final note I want to end on is the music. This is the real stress-relief component of this game. The music is fantastic. Smooth, relaxing, and unobtrusive. The music changes each season–with spring being wistful, winter being reflective. I’ve actually downloaded some of the songs to go to sleep to at night. If you don’t want the game, just find the soundtrack somewhere. You won’t be sorry. But I have to say, at $15, the game is more than worth it.

Stardew Valley is available on Steam for $14.99. The soundtrack is available on Steam for $4.99.

 

The Lego Batman Movie: Review & Discussion

With the success and unexpectedly smart meta-writing of The Lego Movie, as well as my passion for all things Batman, I have been awaiting the release of The Lego Batman Movie for quite some time. And I am glad to say that it did not disappoint. Keep in mind the most important part to me of any movie is always the writing. I will touch a bit on art style here, but what makes this movie truly shine is not just how good it looks–which, to be fair, it looks amazing–but what the movie used its time to say.

The movie begins before the images actually appear onscreen. Will Arnett, voice of Batman, opens with “All important movies start with black.” True to the meta-writing style of The Lego Movie, Lego Batman is completely aware that he is in a movie and this is his opening. As a character, Lego Batman is self-important, self-righteous, self-serious, angsty, arrogant, and “dark”. From his clothes to his self-perceived attitude, Lego Batman believes he is God’s gift to mankind– the coolest, smartest man in the known universe, and he deserves exactly all of the hype that the citizens of Gotham bestow upon him.

Lego Batman is a parody of every “serious” Batman written in the past fifty years, beginning with Tim Burton’s Batman movies, Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” and more recently Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy. In fact, The Lego Batman Movie takes special time and attention to single out Nolan’s movies for criticism beginning in the title sequence. Utilizing the steely-grey Warner Bros. logo and clouded background that opened The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, Will Arnett grunts his approval in his carefully crafted “pretentious, gravelly, edge-lord” voice that is also derivative of the Nolan movies and the absurd voice Christian Bale made famous during his tenure as Batman and Ben Affleck seems to have continued in Batman vs. Superman 

Halfway through the movie, Alfred remarks that Batman has been going through a strange phase as of late–though he does take time to mention all the previous “phases” Batman has gone through over the years as movie posters and the title screen for Batman: The Animated Series scrolls by in the background. “And then there was the 60s,” Alfred mentioned, during which the movie cuts to a clip of Adam West’s 1960s live-action Batman show.

Though The Lego Batman Movie is soundly a Lego Movie, from art style to the utilzation of villains from other properties Lego has the rights to, The Lego Batman Movie is most concerned with being a Batman movie. By referencing all the previous film incarnations of Batman, The Lego Batman Movie makes a very clear statement that this movie is a direct inheritor of the Batman franchise’s legacy. Though these many invocations are used for critique, this movie avoids a common pitfall with satire in that instead of simply critiquing the ridiculousness of the “ultra-self-serious, ‘I work alone’ Batman,” the movie offers up an alternative interpretation of Batman that it argues is a more fulfilling and ultimately more heroic Batman than the Batman we’ve seen grow increasingly dark and violent over the past 50 years.

The first sequence of the movie would seem to support Lego Batman’s ideas that he has an active and fulfilling life–it is flashy, busy, and everything is about him. Every villain and his brother has teamed up to plant a bomb under Gotham City. Batman reveals himself to the villains and starts a self-made mix on his iPod in order to beat them up to it. The song that plays features Patrick Stump (lead singer of Fall Out Boy, for those of you unaware) doing a SPOT ON Batman impersonation. The lyrics include Batman praising himself incessantly–for everything from “never missing leg day” to “being the coolest”. Once it is just Batman and the Joker left standing, Joker reveals the whole plan was an elaborate ploy to convince Batman to have to choose–between finally capturing him, his “arch nemesis” of 78 years, or saving Gotham. Joker was not, however, expecting Batman to say that he, “Doesn’t do [relation]ships,” or “wouldn’t say Joker is his number one villain,” that he’s “fighting a few different bad guys right now,” and that he, “like[s] to fight around.” With Batman’s final assertion, “You mean nothing to me,” Joker flies away on the verge of tears, utterly heartbroken, and suddenly I entered this weird alternate reality where Joker has more humanity and heart to him than Batman.

Batman goes on to disarm the bomb, save the day (or eternal night in Gotham’s case), and bathe in the fanfare Gotham’s citizens supply him. After shooting some Batman merch into a crowd of orphans where Dick Grayson makes his first appearance, Batman returns to the Batcave. The fanfare is gone, not even background music plays as Batman greets the Bat-computer with “I’m home.” His exclamation echoes off the cavern walls. Batman heats up his lobster dinner in a microwave in Wayne Manor and eats by himself. He stares at the Wayne portrait gallery hanging on another expansive wall of a suspiciously empty room, and ends up in an equally large home theater, surrounded by empty seats, watching romantic comedies and laughing at the protagonist’s professions of love and companionship. Looking around he realizes, somewhat pathetically, he’s the only one there to laugh. In the trailers, much of this sequence was featured punctuated by “One is the Loneliest Number”–which is fine for a trailer, but this sequence is perhaps made more poignant by the complete and utter silence of the movie. The loneliness and emptiness that pervades every scene where Batman is home succinctly argues the whole case The Lego Batman Movie makes regarding a necessary change Batman as a character needs to take: Batman needs a supporting cast. Movies like The Dark Knight, in elevating Batman to a symbol, have completely robbed Batman of his humanity–including his need, as a human being, as Bruce Wayne, to connect with others. When Bale’s or Affleck’s Batman inevitably goes home at the end of a long night fighting crime by himself, Alfred has gone to bed, and the only thing waiting for him is a cold dinner. That is not glorious. That is not cool. It’s just fucking sad.

In deciding to treat Batman as a human being, and not just a “symbol,” the movie attempts to offer a reason for Batman’s active refusal to accept new people into his life. “You’re afraid of being part of a family again,” Alfred says to Batman. Though he denies it, this fear of losing those who want to be close to him becomes the hurtle Batman must overcome to save Gotham from a jilted Joker. Not only that, but Batman must come to terms with the fact that, in attempting to push people who care about him away, he has acted far less than heroic.

Overall, the writing of this movie was punchy, but also perceptive. This is probably the only Batman interpretation I’ve ever seen that has had the guts and understanding to label Dick Grayson Bruce’s son, not “ward,” and to label Alfred “surrogate father.” Those are the roles that these characters play in Bruce’s life, regardless of whatever their official titles are. Instead of just satirizing a character that, with all of the crappy, self-serious writing surrounding it has every reason to be satirized, they simultaneously poke fun as well as offer a solution to the problems of characterization that the Batman movies have suffered recently. Not just that, but the animation itself was flawless, the movie despite everything was still kid-friendly, and this is probably one of very few movies I will insist on buying in DVD/Blu-ray when it comes out.

GO SEE THIS MOVIE.

Resident Evil: Aka How to Make a Bad Movie Good

Hey nerders,  Zach here.  I just got out of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and I’ve been thinking about why I so thoroughly enjoyed what is not, in any “objective” sense, a good film.

Resident Evil, as a film series, exists in this weird pseudo-genre of film we collectively call “B-Movies.” Now what defines a B-movie is not the content itself, but the quality of the content.  B-Movies tend to be low-budget, they tend to have bad special effects, the scripts always need at least three to four more drafts before they make any sense, and they’re almost always really intriguing on a conceptual level, but consistently fall short of their ambitions.

Case in point: Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.  Now, this is the sixth movie in this franchise, and all five movies before this one are simultaneously critical to understanding what is going on yet at the same time entirely superfluous. Does a previous film explain why a zombie virus has created a mutant dragon? Probably.  Does the presence of mutant dragons at any point in time become relevant in this movie?  Not really. Nonetheless, there are several mutant dragons in this movie.  There are also mutant dogs, clones with superpowers, clones without superpowers, clones who are maybe not clones, at least one cyborg, a Catholic religious fanatic, and… whatever this thing was.

maxresdefault
My gut says “Super Zombie” but my heart says “Poorly Though Out”

Characters are introduced and given character arcs that end in exactly one scene, and promptly forgotten about or killed. In fact, I’m positive our heroes arrive at the Umbrella Co. hideout with one less person than they left with and it is never addressed. The fact I can’t even remember speaks enough for itself. The twists are obvious, the drama is DRAMATIC, and the pacing appears to speed up every time someone says the phrase “T-Virus.”  All the component parts of this film fail, with the exception of a handful of action set-pieces that succeed entirely based on the insanity of what goes on and how little since it actually makes.  At no point do you even understand what the stakes are except apparently humanity?  But there’s like enough people underground to repopulate Earth?  But they’re bad so we’re just gonna kill everyone?

None of it matters.  Not a lick of it, and yet. AND YET.  I enjoyed the hell out of it. I thought it was a blast.  I’d go so far as to recommend it.  Why am I so forgiving of a film that exists so Mila Jovovich can do kung-fu flips in tight leather and just beat the ever loving shit out of Jorah Mormont when I cannot stand Suicide Squad, which is much better made and (dare I say) written?

Tone.

Tone is the answer. For as high concept as Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is, the movie lacks any pretensions at being more than the sum of its parts.  It’s honestly refreshing.  A film like Suicide Squad wants to demand a certain respect from their audience.  Everything about its presentation begs me to take seriously this group of colorful assholes beating up CGI monsters while constantly telling me how “bad” they are.

SUICIDE SQUAD
Not Pictured: Fun.  Also Not Pictured: Color

Resident Evil though?  Resident Evil could care less if I “respect” it. I don’t mean to say that the film somehow disrespects or devalues the audience’s opinion; I just think that the film does not demand my praise.  It cultivates an environment that invites the audience to watch not because the action is good, or because we care about the characters, but simply to enjoy the next nonsensical set-piece they came up with. Entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

Suicide Squad on the other hand, takes itself so dreadfully serious. Deadshot, the man who dresses in a gimp-outfit and shoots people, has a DAUGHTER.  And Harley Quinn is Joker’s QUEEN. She BELONGS to him. (That particular mess is a WHOLE OTHER issue).  We, the audience, are not invited to enjoy–we are commanded to respect these well-shot, ultimately boring action sequences and equally boring characters. In contrast, Resident Evil tries to earn that investment (however cheaply) by throwing false jump scares–so many that we’re actively waiting to see which improbable death-trap actually manages to kill someone.  Is Alice gonna make it through the weird mutant Predator fight?

monstar
WHAT EVEN ARE YOU!?!?!

Yeah probably, but what kind of death scene will we get for her friend? What kind of creative ploy will she use to somehow kill it? How will she devise another strategy when it doesn’t die the first time? Or the second time?  Tonally the film is totally neutral on whether or not we should care for any reason other than those other dudes are like, super crazy and clearly evil.  More than that it’s because the longer our heroes last the more awesome stunts we get to see.

But let’s get more specific.  I’m gonna talk about two scenes, equally poorly done, about mistrust.  In Resident Evil we are hastily introduced to a group of survivors in the bombed out shell of Raccoon city.  Their names are not important.  One of them is a gear head, one of them is the leader, one of them is the sensible one, and then there’s this guy:

15403596_10155537094338709_5900639803870578613_o
Huh.  Weird he never uses the sword.

I’m gonna call him Jim. Jim is distrustful of Alice.  He is distrustful because this is the apocalypse and that is what you do.  We further establish that he has a problem with Leader, because as the distrustful one he must challenge authority when it comes to trusting strangers.  He eventually trusts Alice because that is how these character arcs end.  It barely qualifies as a character arc.  The “sequence” in which Alice earns his trust involves her ziplining down a horde of zombies, while the ground is on fire, outrunning said zombies, killing exactly 3 human beings, and then somehow leading the zombie horde away even though we haven’t seen the horde in several minutes.

15816248_1202945586458554_8740221287302955008_n
I think this is from that scene, it gets pretty exploisiony so it’s kind of a blur

Now for Suicide Squad.  Rick Flagg is the army sergeant in charge of the Squad that is bent on Suicide, because his woman (therefore property) has been possessed by an as-yet unnamed Evil Spirit.  He is distrustful of Deadshot because he is a man who kills people for money; Deadshot is also a coward because he kills from a distance. Yet, because he uses different guns and shoots people at a slightly closer range, by his logic he is not a coward.  Deadshot proves himself by jumping on top of a car and shooting a bunch of CGI monsters, outside of cover, even though we’ve established the accuracy of the CGI squad, and killing a bunch of them in what I imagine was supposed to be his “badass” moment.

maxresdefault-1
“Tell me I’m overcompensating ONE MORE TIME!”

Now between the two, Suicide Squad is almost certainly more coherent.  But this “conflict” between two manly men is equally as artificial and stupid as the Resident Evil one, Suicide Squad just expects me to take it seriously– as serious as if this were a legitimate conflict between two men who were not part of a group including a giant alligator man a woman with a sword who steals souls.  Resident Evil establishes the barest frame of a character to use for the purposes of setting up a spectacular action sequence.  The audience is not expected to take the events anywhere near as serious as the characters, and this is reflected in the tone of the scenes, namely in how incredibly short they are.

That is what Resident Evil gets that Suicide Squad doesn’t.  You can’t ask me to take seriously a man with boomerangs drinking beer with an international assassin and a talking alligator with the kind of severity I would a scene from the Godfather.  While it is important for films to be internally consistent, a good director must ask the audience for exactly the right kind of investment.  Wes Anderson asks for exactly the right amount, David Ayer asked for far too much. Tone matters.

Also just look at this outfit:

reafterlife11950
Just because you’ve kick-started the Apocalypse doesn’t mean you can’t look FINE doing it

That is the outfit of someone who KNOWS he’s a B-Movie villain.  You don’t design an outfit like this if you’re going for anything other than camp.

He Says, She Says: A Series of Unfortunate Events | The Miserable Mill

The events of “The Miserable Mill” signal this season’s close. The Baudelaires find themselves not in a home, but in Lucky Smells Lumber Mill where–despite child labor laws–they are put to work by Charles and “Sir,” the owners of the lumber mill. Work at the lumber mill is arduous,tedious, and morally objectionable. Instead of salaries, they are paid in coupons; and instead of lunch they are fed chewing gum. The children try to comfort themselves by thinking surely, Count Olaf would not show up here, but alas, he does–and this time, he is joined by an ex-girlfriend, Dr. Georgina Orwell. He and Georgina join forces against the Baudelaires in an attempt to once again snag their fortune. Aided by Dr. Orwell’s talent for hypnosis, she and Olaf come very close to snagging custody of the Baudelaires once again. However, viewers may gain some satisfaction in knowing this time Olaf is run off by an angry mob, and not the witless Mr. Poe.

Zach

Of all the conclusions to this chapter of the lives of the Baudelaire orphans, of all the terrible, horrible, painful things I thought would be inflicted upon them, I never once suspected this twist.  The reveal that Mother and Father were not, in fact, that Mother and Father was heartbreaking and perfectly executed.  From their initial introduction in the first episodes, to the introduction of the second set of children during this arc, the show-runners of A Series of Unfortunate Events, show their complete mastery of dramatic convention and knowledge of where exactly to press the audience’s heartstrings to keep them watching.  It was an incredibly bold choice, spending the whole series dragging out this plot line only to rip it out from under us, and then under the characters.  It is entirely fitting within the themes of the show: that there is no happy ending. Not for us, not for the Baudelaires, and not for Mother and Father.

While the audience mourns the loss of the false hope  that the Baudelaires might ever be rescued, the Baudelaires struggled at Lucky Smells Lumbermill.  Caught up in the dastardly schemes of a dastardly businessman, his weak-willed husband, and an even more dangerous foe in the personage of Dr.  Georgina Orwell (Catherine O’Hara), the actually competent ex-lover of Count Olaf.  Faced with a competent opponent for the first time, without any means of escape we see watch as Violet, Klaus, and Sunny learn that even without the shackles of societal expectation upon them, sometimes they just aren’t clever enough to overcome everything.  As the three pontificate on whether or not there’s any lesson learned during their misadventures, they conclude that their mission is and should remain:survive.  Survive Count Olaf’s schemes, survive the incompetence of their guardians, survive the malice of their future enemies.

Unfortunately the Mill plotline itself, and their struggles to clear their parents name, lacked the dramatic weight of their time at Lake Lacrymose.  While I found Sir and his partner Charles very funny, and I enjoyed the ever increasing scope of the conspiracy surrounding Count Olaf and the secret organization, I couldn’t help but feel, following the dramatic reveal about Mother and Father, that whatever information the kids got wouldn’t be meaty.  And it really wasn’t, at least not in terms of plot relevance. Instead, as I sit here thinking about it, what the kids really gained was a peace of mind. Despite all that their parents kept from them, they were ultimately good people.  They were still heroes and that is so important for the children and the audience.  It lets the kids know that no matter what happens, they can be rest assured that their parents loved them, that they were not in any way “like” Count Olaf, and that the kids’ conception of their parents is still valid. For the first time in the series, the absolutely worst possible thing which could happen to the kids doesn’t happen, instead they find some small amount of validation.

It’s an refreshingly hopeful lesson for our group of depressed young orphans to learn.  Yet at the same time the audience is not left without hope during the melancholic musical number which ties up in a dour, dark bow this season of A Series of Unfortunate Events.  The Buadelaires are not alone, they are not the only orphans without parents.  They are not the only victims of Count Olaf’s schemes.  Lemony Snicket is not dead.  The Baudelaires are not as alone as they might feel, and the next season promises to bring together three plotlines at play in what will almost certainly be a tragedy of unimaginable scale.  A Series of Unfortunate Events never compromises on the dark material it portrays, it makes no excuses, nor does it try to blunt the blows, yet at know point does the tragedy overwhelm the audience.  It’s a masterly-crafted tragedy from start to finish and it get’s a hearty recommendation from me.  I can’t wait for next season.

 

Katelyn

From the end of “The Wide Window” now throughout “The Miserable Mill” the show has made a number of important changes that do not effect the story of the Baudelaires so much as the interpretation of events.

After Aunt Josephine’s death, rather than wait for Poe to once again fail to capture Count Olaf and find themselves back in either of their care, the Baudelaires make a decision to go “off book” and seek out the Lucky Smells Lumbermill, where they have been led to believe they will find more information on their parents, the mysterious fire that killed them, and why all these supposed family friends were kept a secret from them. This is a significant departure from the books, in which the Baudelaires accept having to travel with Mr. Poe once again and having him assign a new guardian. The show’s choice thus tells us they have developed a different interpretation of the Baudelaire children than the books did. These Baudelaires have become emboldened by their experiences, and they have also become rightly distrustful of the adults occupying their world. They no longer trust Mr. Poe to look out for their interests. In fact I am recalling the end of The Reptile Room when they demanded to go live with their Aunt Josephine that they were already showing a desire to exert control over their lives that finally came to fruition here.

This gift of the Baudelaire’s agency also happens to soften, to a degree, the nature of how the Baudelaires end up at Lucky Smells Lumbermill. In the book, there have been no clues linking the mill to their parents or any dealing with them that the Baudelaires wish to follow; rather, “Sir,” the owner of the mill, has simply put in to have some children work for him. His mill is something I would liken to the poorhouse of Oliver Twist–practically a prison. He does not pay his workers, barely feeds them, and employs children. Consciously. Sought them out. It is much easier to watch children offer to work and have a mostly-despicable, somewhat-idiotic person accept their offer than to fathom for a brief moment we’ve entered a world where child labor laws no longer apply and a banker would hand over a teen, a preteen, and a baby to be put to work in a mill.

Speaking of notable changes, the not-so-subtle change to the text surrounding Sir and Charles’ relationship was rather refreshing. The language of the book never excluded the possibility of a gay relationship, and I have read that the nature of Charles preparing Sir’s omelettes and ironing his clothes, all details present in the book, had suggested to readers of the series that Sir and Charles might be in some sort of romantic partnership. Nonetheless, an explicit and humorous confirmation was much appreciated on my part.

The major thing I want to talk about regarding The Miserable Mill would be the “non-twist” regarding the parents we’ve been following since episode one. As someone who had read the books, I was incredibly perplexed by the introduction of those characters. Zach turned to me at the beginning of the series and said, “Wait. The Baudelaires’ parents are dead, right?” to which I replied, “Well. Maybe. They are definitely dead in the books but it might be different here.”

Because I’d noticed this trend for the series to try and alleviate some of the more painful events of the story, I thought perhaps this would just become a running thing–a light, witty background to give readers hope that the Baudelaires might not be as alone as they feel–that their parents were always just around the corner.

Well, I am happy to say that I was wrong and did not have enough faith in the writing of this series. In fact, their decision to con the audience into believing the Baudelaires and their parents were about to open a door and be reunited was executed brilliantly. But I think something that should not be overlooked in regards to this scene is what that scene so clearly establishes for the world of the Baudelaires–tragedy is not localized to the Baudelaires.

In an earlier scene, the Quagmire children–who begin to play a role in the series beginning in The Austere Academy onwards– are introduced early to contrast the Baudelaire’s current situation. Snicket mentions if you wake up to a butler bringing you fresh orange juice and blueberry pancakes, you’ll probably have a good day. If, however, you wake up in a mill to someone banging pots and pans together, you’re probably going to have a bad day. The Quagmires are the children that wake up to blueberry pancakes and orange juice; they still have it all. And the Baudelaires are the children stuck in a mill. However, it is that same night (or a very short time later) from a day filled with blueberry pancakes and reunions with their parents where the Quagmires’ house burns down in much the same fashion as the Baudelaires’.

These events signal to viewers the tragedy is not just limited to the Baudelaires. Though their tragedy is central to the narrative, it is not exclusive. We will be meeting more children, like the Quagmires, spending more time with those like Snicket who have experienced misfortune, and there will be no end to the number of evil people we encounter–like the person we catch a brief glimpse of responsible for the fire at the Quagmire mansion.

Ending the season on a somewhat cliched sing-song note reminding viewers happiness is “not how the story goes” was a little bit excessive in my opinion and really the only negative thing I have to say about it. The song lasted a little too long, was a little too repetitive, and did not seem to contribute to the story more than wrapping up where each of our characters are ending this season. It’s a callback to the opening of each episode, “Look Away,” sung by Neil Patrick Harris in an Olafian fashion–but I really did not feel like the whole cast needed to be brought in on it. I’m a fan of musicals, but considering there’d been no other occurrence of singing within the show that wasn’t one of Olaf’s performances, it felt very out of place, despite all the show’s best efforts to make it work.

That said, overall the show was exceedingly well done, and I eagerly await the next season, which has already been green-lit by Netflix.

Thanks for reading!

 

He Says, She Says: A Series of Unfortunate Events | The Wide Window

Episodes 5 and 6 of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events detail the events of the third book in the series by the same name in which the Baudelaires go to live with their kind but extremely paranoid and omni-phobic Aunt Josephine. Aunt Josephine is described as having once been a “fierce and formidable” woman who lost her edge when her husband, Ike, died. Now she lives at the top of a hill overlooking Lake Lachrymose in constant fear that she will catch a splinter in the door, her phone will electrocute her, or worse–real estate agents. Before the Baudelaires can get settled, Count Olaf and his terrible acting return once again, this time as “Captain Sham.”

Zach

At long last both the audience and the Baudelaire orphans get what they’ve wanted for so long.  Some answers.  A whole lot happens in this arc, but I am particularly drawn to the the growing abilities of the Baudelaire orphans and the continued mystery surrounding the secret organization which is responsible for much of the upsetting scenario which the children find themselves in.

As the series has progressed,the Baudelaires have grown less and less confident that anyone around them will be able to help them.  Even the “fierce and formidable” Aunt Josephine proves to be less than capable of helping them or seeing through Olaf’s disguise.  Rather than waiting for Count Olaf to kill their aunt as he did their uncle, the Baudelaires immediately set about attempting to both stop him and learn more about the mysterious, vaguely secret organization which appears to tie together their bizarre guardians with their parents and Count Olaf. Though their attempts are frustrated again by a literal force of nature, that the kids are finally taking their fate into their own hands is a delightful development. Violet in particular takes firm control of the situation as the eldest, working to keep her siblings safe, standing up to her Aunt Josephine, and being their biggest advocate against Count Olaf as he fools Poe for the third time.

I have to admit, Poe’s shtick is getting tired this far in.  I was so relieved when the kids ditched him to head off to the mill.  I doubt they will find the answers they seek there, but at least they’re taking the initiative and refusing to allow themselves to submit to his “care.”  The mill itself was a discovery on Klaus’ part, who spent this arc sifting through Aunt Josephine’s library in an attempt to find information on this vaguely secret organization that they’re just beginning to realize exists– and that just about everyone they’ve been involved with so far was in it.  The kids at last have some purpose, a goal to work towards outside of survival, though they may not like what they find out.

Speaking of learning: Lemony Snicket. Apparently he’s maybe dead?  And also a part of the mysterious, vaguely secret organization?  Our delightfully dreary narrator’s integration into the story raises a whole host of questions, and his relationship with Mother and Father, as well as the apparent scope of Count Olaf’s machinations.  There is more going on here than just a series of unfortunate events, but will the Baudelaire children figure it out before they lose the rest of their allies?  With Mother and Father swiftly converging on the children’s location, next episode is sure to be full of revelations both happy and distressing.

Katelyn

Thus far we’ve seen a very faithful adaptation of the source material from this TV series (excluding the references to VFD, which I will cover with “The Miserable Mill” post). However, with “The Wide Window” comes a very significant departure from the books. I am not someone who insists on complete and blind faithfulness to source text–especially when aspects of the source text can stand to be improved. That said, usually I would prefer a more strict adherence to text. In this case, I am old enough now to accept that the original Series of Unfortunate Events can be repetitive in nature and thus become monotonous for adults to read. As a child, the repetition was somewhat comforting; as an adult, trying to read through the same plot arc 13 times (as there are 13 books in the whole series), I quickly grow tired of: Baudelaires meet new guardian, Count Olaf shows up, no one believes them, Baudelaires foil Olaf’s plans, Mr. Poe takes them away, rinse and repeat. If the show had decided to follow the source text completely, no amount of witticisms from Patrick Warburton would’ve saved it.

So while I was expecting and–dare I say–hoping for some departures from the source text, I was not expecting to have a character like Aunt Josephine evolved like she was. I suspect part of the motivation for this evolution was an attempt to make the story a little easier to watch, and honestly I completely understand the writers’ motivation. I’ve noted to Zach on several occasions that they seem to be cushioning some blows in the show, like warning the viewer almost immediately that Uncle Monty would die so the audience had time to prepare. The books as they were could be incredibly heartbreaking; it was always one of my theories as a child that Snicket stopped writing sympathetic guardians for the Baudelaires after The Wide Window because watching so many good people die at the hands of Olaf would’ve become unbearable.

That said, Netflix’s series completely rewrote Josephine’s death scene to the point of rewriting Josephine herself, allowing her to die somewhat nobly–really, all anyone in this series can ask for. I’m going to let my English major show a little bit here now and quote the conversation leading up to Josephine’s death from the book so you can see how different it was in the show for yourself.

“Oh no,” she said. Her eyes were wide with fear. “Don’t throw me overboard,” she pleaded. “Please!…I promise not to say anything to Mr. Poe!” Aunt Josephine said desperately. “I’ll go someplace and hide away, and never show my face! You can tell him I’m dead! You can have the fortune! You can have the children! Just don’t throw me to the leeches!”

The Baudelaires looked at their guardian in horror. “You’re supposed to be caring for us,” Violet told Aunt Josephine in astonishment, “not putting us up for grabs!”

Captain Sham paused, and seemed to consider Aunt Josephine’s offer. “You have a point,” he said. “I don’t have to kill you. People just have to think you’re dead.”

“I’ll change my name!” Aunt Josephine said. “I’ll dye my hair! I’ll wear colored contact lenses! And I’ll go very, very far away! Nobody will ever hear from me!”

“But what about us, Aunt Josephine?” Klaus asked in horror. “What about us?”

–Lemony Snicket, The Wide Window p 187-189

Now to contrast this scene with Netflix’s show, Josephine’s life ends not only standing up and defending her newly-adopted children, but standing up for herself to Count Olaf, and saying she was ready to be fierce and formidable again. She manages to reclaim herself, and instead of sniveling and begging, becomes someone the Baudelaires can be proud to have called their guardian. But in rewriting Josephine, Netflix fundamentally rewrites the kind of adults we should expect from this world.

In the books, Josephine was the last “good” guardian–however, as you can tell, she is not even that. She is much too quick to give them up to save herself when, as their guardian, she should be the one protecting them from Olaf, not the other way around. (In the book Sunny, the baby, has positioned herself between Olaf and Josephine in order to protect Josephine. If that ain’t messed up I don’t know what is.) The books thus set the standard for the kind of adults the Baudelaires can encounter and clearly establish that the only ones looking out for them and their safety is themselves, and as such, they develop a very strong bond among themselves as they struggle to survive in a world of adults actively trying to take advantage of them, hurt them, or at best, ignoring them. The show has attempted to alter this worldview by rewriting characters like Josephine and by inserting characters like Mr. Poe’s secretary who assure the children (and more so the audience) that she will actively be seeking to help them from behind the scenes. The children, despite everything, do not feel quite as alone and helpless as they do in the books, and I think this subtle alleviation of bleakness has ultimately made the show more watchable. My only hope is that they do not go overboard and start to write too optimistically. This is a literal series of unfortunate events. Snicket’s warnings of tragedy and sorrow will become cheap if the show tries too hard to comfort its audience.

 

What I’m Playing: Slime Rancher

Hey Everybody! So today I’m going to talk to you a bit about my newest and most favorite form of stress relief: Slime Rancher.

Slime Rancher is an adorable little game and the first project of developer Monomi Park. (You can find their website here.) The game is currently available Early Access on Steam, meaning the game isn’t quite done yet, but is still available to buy; you just have to be patient in waiting for the game to update. The most recent update was just released this past Thursday, January 19th. Though they did not release any more major features, these people seem to really be mindful of their community of players by responding with putting out bug fixes and quality enhancements as they are able.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good startup.

But now on to the main event: Why should you get this game? It’s simple, really. It’s just too cute. I’m a sucker for cute, and I know I’m not the only one. The world of Slime Rancher is innocent, peaceful, and beautiful–perfect for temporarily forgetting about your terrible boss, your boring job, the dishes in the sink that need washing, the laundry–really anything. The second you hear these adorable slime creatures giggle as they bounce around your character like jellified puppies, you’ll be hooked. The slime creatures themselves are bright blues, pinks, greens, and yellows; the water-laden world is sparkly, clean, and really quite romantic at times. The Slime Sea has some spectacular sunsets you can witness on a daily basis right outside your front door. And since the world has no other signs of life but your own personal ranch, the game feels almost like a naturalist escape.

slimerancher-2017-01-22-12-32-17-67
A group of Tabby Slimes from my ranch.

Thus far the game has four distinct regions: The Ranch (which also encompasses The Grotto and The Overgrowth), The Dry Reef, The Indigo Quarry, and The Moss Blanket. Each of these areas is vibrant, from the rust-colored Dry Reef styled after picturesque canyons, to The Moss Blanket that is distinctly jungle-themed with rich greens, blues, and touches of purple. (There are two more regions in development, but there is no word when those areas will be released.)

slimerancher-2017-01-22-12-44-57-30
The Indigo Quarry
slimerancher-2017-01-22-01-27-54-09
The Moss Blanket
slimerancher-2017-01-22-12-38-05-65
The Dry Reef

The concept of the story for Slime Rancher is simple and unobtrusive. You could probably play through all the content and have no idea what the story was. It’s there to add a bit of context, and more might be done with it as the game continues to be updated, but as it stands, the in-game story serves as flavor text to the charming, alien world of the slimes. The basic idea is your character is named Beatrix, and you’ve come to a planet far away from earth for the purpose of setting up a slime ranch–where instead of cattle, you keep slimes. And you sell their “plorts”–their poop, essentially, which sounds gross and yet still manages to be adorable because plorts look like gems and not what we think of as excrement–for money on the Plort Market. The Plort Market is like the Stock Market, only with less corruption and scandal.

How do you get the slime creatures onto your little patch of alien-heaven? Well, you venture out into the wild and you suck them up. Don’t be alarmed, the slimes seem to think it’s great fun to be sucked up into your vacuum gun. The most you’ll get out of them is “Whoa!” And once you have a little corral set up for them, all you have to do is aim, shoot them back out, and there you go. You’re a slime rancher. (Pro Tip: Invest in high walls early on because those little suckers like to bounce and stack on top of each other, and they’ll bounce right to freedom if you’re not careful.)

In addition to distinct regions, there are also slimes that are unique to each area. Rad and Crystal Slimes can only be found in the Indigo Quarry; Hunter Slimes can only be found in the Moss Blanket, etc. There is another mechanic in the game that allows the fusion of two unlike slimes into a larger, infinitely cuter slime called a largo. Pictured at the top are my personal favorites from my ranch, the Honey Hunter Largos, which are a mix of (you guessed it) Honey and Hunter slimes. The advantage to having largos on your ranch is you get twice the plorts for the food you feed them–which means more money. Also, you know what’s cuter than a slime? A bigger slime. I mean look at them! They’re so happy.

slimerancher-2017-01-22-12-26-15-74

But every good game has to come with some risk. The downside is that, if not carefully monitored, your adorable and beloved largo can turn into a Tarr, which is an ugly, nasty little abomination that consumes other slimes and turns them into Tarr as well–until soon you have a whole infestation. I know you don’t want that. So monitor your largos, friends. (Another Pro Tip: largos only turn into Tarr if they eat a plort unlike either of the two slimes that makes up the largo. So if my Honey Hunters ate a Honey plort, they’d be fine. But a Rock or Tabby plort? Not so much. So only keep your largos corralled with other largos or slimes of the same type.)

slimerancher-2017-01-22-12-51-05-80
A Tarr.
slimerancher-2017-01-22-12-50-40-21
I had to include this one. Look at it’s poor, scared little face. (Don’t worry. I saved it.)

I think one of the things this game has going for it is that you have complete control over how much time you invest into it. You can pick it up for a few hours here and there, get one or two things done, and then go about your business–or you can also sink more time into it if you want, and you’ll still have things to do. The recently introduced “Slime Science” has a resource-gathering component that’s bound to take up some time if you choose to delve into it. But you don’t have to, and certainly not all at once. It’s a game that can fit into anyone’s life–especially if you don’t feel like you have the kind of time to devote to playing games like The Witcher 3, for instance. They’re huge and immersive and wonderful, but if you don’t have at least 6 hours to devote to it at a time, you’re not going to feel like you got anything done.

This game is also perfect for gamers who are looking for something non-combative. The closest the game comes to combat is when your rancher has to fend off Tarr. The peaceful music turns intense and I generally spend a few moments looking around wildly thinking “Where is it?” before it will inevitably fly through the sky at me in a charge. All you have to do is shoot the Tarr with water a few times and they dissolve, so it’s really not a big deal; and you can go days in-game without seeing a Tarr if you decide to play it safe and stay inside at night when they’re most likely to pop up. Once you get into the Slime Science mechanic, there is a blueprint available for a water cannon, and if you place one where Tarr are likely to show up, you’ll never have to worry about them again. Easy-peasy.

So if you have about $20 to spare and are looking for something a little more zen, I’d say Slime Rancher is worth it. And you’ll be supporting a brand new developer that, from what I’ve seen, is interested in listening to their players to provide the best gaming experience they can, which is something I think we can all get behind.

If you do decide to pick up the game, or if you already have the game and decided to read this anyway, leave a comment and tell me what you think.

Slime Rancher is available on Steam  for $19.99.

He Says, She Says: A Series of Unfortunate Events | The Reptile Room

On this edition of He Says, She Says: A Series of Unfortunate Events, “The Reptile Room.” One of the most heartbreaking stories in the habitually horrible tales of the Baudelaire orphans, “The Reptile Room” is another two-part episode detailing the events of the second book of the series by the same name. The Baudelaire children are taken to live with Dr. Montgomery Montgomery, the guardian they would’ve been living with if not for the incompetence of Mr. Poe, the stupid-but-well-meaning banker and executor of their parents’ will. Dr. Montgomery Montgomery, or Uncle Monty for short, is an eccentric herpetologist that was a friend of the Baudelaires’ parents in life. But, alas, Count Olaf has not given up on attaining the Baudelaire’s fortune yet, and disguises himself as a new assistant of Uncle Monty’s named Stephano.

Zach

There’s a lot I appreciated about this arc, but a lot that indicates there may be future frustration on the horizon for A Series of Unfortunate Events.  Aasif Mandvi was a delight as Doctor Montgomery Montgomery, and his particular brand of guardianship was a welcome change of pace from the benign neglect we saw in the previous arc by Judge Strauss. Uncle Monty is well portrayed as a well-meaning, if a little eccentric, guardian for the Baudelaires, who is honestly intent on showing them how to navigate this strange and tragic world they now inhabit.  In particular it was nice for another adult to acknowledge immediately how awful Count Olaf’s acting is, which means Monty acts as a nice reprieve from the tragedy which always inevitably follows.

My only complaint about Uncle Monty is that he is only with us for a such a short time before dramatic irony intervenes and threatens to reset the status quo once again.  It’s a harsh lesson, but an important one as it firmly establishes to the orphans and the audience that the only ones they can rely on are one another.  The other focus of this arc involves Mother and Father escaping from whatever dastardly trap Count Olaf set for them and setting off to find and rescue their children, with the other members of their organization attempting to alert Monty and enlist his aid.  As someone who was worried that the show would get repetitive in regards to the children’s frustrated attempts at working their way out of this situation, I am happy to see that there is a larger plot at play here beyond Olaf’s greed.

It is only frustrating that, halfway through the series, the Baudelaire orphans still know as little about the secret organizations and conspiracies as they do.  I worry that the payoff for these sequences might be something Sonnenfield and co. are holding off for next season, which would be supremely frustrating. It is disheartening to watch the children be continually frustrated by their age and continually be put in danger because of the idiocy of the adult community.  I understand that this is done so purposefully, both because unfortunate things ought to happen in a show called A Series of Unfortunate Events, and also because its a key part of the series critique on the ways in which “polite society” is complicit in the horror and abuse inflicted upon the most neglected members of our communities.

Men like Mr. Poe are not evil, in fact they likely see themselves as good men.  Yet his refusal to take the children seriously, to always believe the adult in the room, is repeatedly a tacit acceptance of the abuse and violence inflicted on the children.  Mr. Poe stands in for every adult who has ever turned a blind eye to injustice and violence because it’s “none of their business.”  It’s an excellently written criticism, and the audience feels the anger and frustration the Baudelaire’s feel at their own lack of agency in a world that is willing to look the other way to Count Olaf’s schemes if it gets them back before banking hours.  It is because of that frustration that I hope this does not become a recurring a scenario. We have seen Poe fail before, in this exact same way.   While the appeal of the show lies in the unfortunate events, I hope that the latter half of the season has a little more variety in how these events transpire.

Katelyn

Before we began watching A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix, I told Zach one thing that I thought he needed to know about the story of the Baudelaires. Though our dear narrator Lemony Snicket often warns his viewers to “Look away” and stop watching the series–something which I might call a clever bit of reverse psychology if I believed in it–Mr. Snicket directs our attention towards the wrong cause of the sadness and misfortune that the Baudelaire children experience and that we, as viewers, react to.

The true tragedy in this series is not the despicable Count Olaf. He does terrible things; you cringe and curse whenever his ugly mug shows up in proximity to the Baudelaires. But the true sadness, the heartbreak, always derives from the fact that the people in the Baudelaires lives–those who could, those who should protect them–do not. It should not be the Baudelaires always figuring their way out of their terrible situations with inventions, research, and the occasional bite from Sunny. It should not fall on the Baudelaires to protect their guardian from the murderous plans of Count Olaf. But it always is, because the one rule of the universe the Baudelaires occupy is that adults never listen to children, even if they’re right, because of the simple fact that they are children.

Mr. Poe is the worst perpetrator of this pattern, because he and Olaf are the only constants in the children’s lives. I recall that by the end of reading the series as a child I had lost all respect or sympathy for Mr. Poe. Despite the fact the children were always right about Count Olaf’s disguises, his actions, his plans, Mr. Poe always ignored them because of the simple fact they were children. And his stubborn adherence to these ideals put the children’s lives in danger countless times. One of the saddest things I believe we have to watch in this series is not the children’s interactions with a murderer, but watching them plead and beg Mr. Poe to listen, only to be dismissed in the most nonchalant and callous manner imaginable–with a smile, a cough, a ridiculously scathing “Now Baudelaires you’re being rude little children. You’re obviously just hysterical,” and being sent up to their room. As if they are not terrified, nearly crying, begging, pleading. Go to your room.

Uncle Monty, though he is kind and well-meaning to a fault, is also guilty of this crime. Not nearly to the extreme degree that Mr. Poe is, but he believes that his own assumptions of Stephano’s true identity as a “spy” from the Herpetological Society, and not Count Olaf. It’s pure vanity, in fact. Instead of believing for one second this man was after his new wards, Monty believes it’s all about him. His reputation, his genius. I think his conceit even shows in the naming of The Incredibly Deadly Viper. It is a misnomer, he says, meant to pull a prank on those at the herpetological society who made fun of his double name Montgomery Montgomery. But Monty shows an awareness of the stigma against snakes; in attempting to seek a small bit of revenge for a largely harmless amount of teasing, he puts the life of The Incredibly Deadly Viper in danger because the adults are so willing to believe his misnomer, believe that it was The Incredibly Deadly Viper that killed him, not Count Olaf. It is Monty’s disbelief of the Baudelaire’s that costs Monty his life, and the viewers are left not just cursing Olaf, but cursing Monty for his vanity, his stupidity, his refusal to believe the Baudelaires just like Poe.

In A Series of Unfortunate Events, the relief of temporarily thwarting Count Olaf’s schemes never quite matches the cost. And I think something that this show has proved particularly adept at is explaining how in very few words. With Uncle Monty’s death, not only are the orphans once again homeless, but so are all the reptiles that Monty loved and cared for in The Reptile Room. One by one they are all carried out of the house and loaded into a van. And when Snicket comes on screen at the end of the episode to give one of his final monologues, the once-sunny and lively reptile room is empty. The cages gone, the bookshelves empty, and the dim light of the moon show

He Says, She Says: A Series of Unfortunate Events | The Bad Beginning

On this momentous first edition of “He Says, She Says”–which is, in short, our way of doing a joint reflection on the things we watch, we will be discussing Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which premiered (quite fittingly) on Friday 13th. Though the whole series is available to watch on Netflix now, we have decided to break our discussion down into parts corresponding to the show, starting with “The Bad Beginning,” which encapsulates episodes one and two. These episodes introduce us to the Baudelaire children Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, their unique talents for invention, research, and biting respectively, and their habitually tragicomic lives. On top of that, we are also introduced to Count Olaf: the children’s first guardian (of many) after having been orphaned.

Zach

Overall I was really impressed with the introductory episodes.  As someone who only has vague memories of the Jim Carey movie and no prior knowledge of the series I was very surprised at how well the show balances itself between tragedy and comedy.  A Series of Unfortunate Events embraces the horrible and terrifying as mundane.  From the way the world is presented to the way characters interact, the whole production approaches the tragedy taking place with a detached sense of humor.    It was a surprising choice and more than a little bold considering how dark the material gets at times, and the series doesn’t shy away from any of it.  The opening is bold, and the whole production feels as if it revels in the tragedy befalling the Baudelaire children. Yet at the same time it manages to avoid feeling depressing or mean-spirited.

Part of that is owed to how freely it cribs from director Barry Sonnenfield’s previous work on the Addams Family movies (personal favorites of mine). The Baudelaire children Violet, Klaus, and Sunny sit comfortably in that same mix of intelligent but “off” that the Addams children do.  The introduction to Count Olaf’s house in particular felt like a callback to those introductory sequences, and the contrast between Olaf’s obviously unsafe, decidedly horrific home and the surrounding neighborhood, which is steeped in the imagery of classical 50s Americana calls attention to and heightens the unreality of the more “unfortunate” set-pieces of this series.

The set design is fantastic.  I’m not entirely certain if the series was filmed on a green screen or not, but much of the shot composition is meant to mimic the way films were blocked out in the Golden Age. The houses and yards are carefully manicured, with lots of bright yellows and blues popping throughout the suburbia the children are forced to inhabit.   All the backgrounds, even in Count Olaf’s despicable mansion appear fake.  It gives the whole from feeling real at times, when the insane tragedies occur. The unreality of the world around them makes the awful things which befell the Baudelaire children during this episode makes it easier to stomach, which will keep the show from getting too hopeless as it continues.

The adults in A Series of Unfortunate Events are dumb.  Almost unbelievably dumb.  This is contrasted with the unusual Baudelaire children, who are are so much more intelligent than everyone else yet are constantly ignored.  Were it not for how exceedingly dumb the adults are, the tragedy would be such that it would render the show depressing to the point of unwatchable.  The children’s guardian Count Olaf is an exceptionally bad actor, and manages to take in all the adults in the show with his poorly thought out plans.  The children, by contrast, see through his schemes as soon as he shows up, much like the audience.  It is perhaps the only solace in this unfortunate tale of woe that the children, when not restrained by societal norms and expectations, are able to outmaneuver their despicable guardian so easily.  I look forward to seeing how the continue to escape one tragic happening to another and to see if the show can keep up the pace of tragedy without exhausting the audience.

 

Katelyn

Netflix has rarely disappointed me. When I first heard A Series of Unfortunate Events had been picked up, I was very hopeful that they would find a way to do it justice. Every piece of marketing I saw leading up to the show’s release only cemented that feeling–from the endorsement of the author “Lemony Snicket” himself, the first glimpses of footage, and learning that the man producing it was the same man who had done The Addams Family, I felt that one of my favorite series as a kid was in capable hands.

One of the best things about the books that has been gloriously translated onto the screen is the books’ use of language. The books are almost Dickensian in nature (if Dickens had had a drier, more bitter sense of humor) with its long sentences and fondness for commas, semicolons, and dashes. This series is faithful to its source text to a degree I have only seen maybe once or twice before, and as a literature buff, it makes me practically giddy to see a show not just pay homage to its source text, but actively try to incorporate it into as many scenes as possible. Utilizing the character of the narrator as heavily as the show does allows for the kind of verbosity that the books had without seeming awkward or out of place.

In the books the bitter, sardonic, morbid, constantly-in-a-state-of-peril narrator is left unnamed. For the purposes of the show, though, the narrator’s name becomes the pseudonym that the author of the books wrote under, Lemony Snicket. The execution of the narrator is much better than I’d ever hoped for–basically pristine. What I was expecting to happen was Patrick Warburton would narrate over some scenes to give context and be witty. Instead, the show has decided to insert Patrick Warburton himself on-screen to narrate. This allows him to occupy two spaces in the narrative, both within and without. In the scenes where he appears with the other characters of the story alongside him, he often gives vital context or foreshadowing. In the scenes he appears alone, he usually occupies spaces we’ve already seen, but at the time of Snicket’s narration, have long been abandoned by the Baudelaires and everyone else, lending those scenes a very solemn quality.

Patrick Warburton’s performance itself is spot-on. He’s able to stone-face the most hilarious or morbid narration of the series with perfect enunciation and inflection. He was, quite honestly, a perfect choice for that character. And I am so glad he is being treated as the character he always was and deserves to be. However, I do hope that we see more scenes of him in the midst of peril. I distinctly remember many scenes from the book that were quite ridiculous for the narrator, and I believe they could bring much-needed levity to the show which is, as it advertises, quite bleak at times.

On the subject of casting choices, I thought Neil Patrick Harris was an interesting choice for Count Olaf. I wasn’t put off by it, but I also wasn’t thinking to myself, “Oh yes. Of course. An obvious choice.” I mean, Neil Patrick Harris is supposed to be attractive first of all. Which, if you have any experience with the series, Count Olaf is definitely not. Not just that, but the only other Count Olaf ever attempted was Jim Carey’s. This is not to say that I think Jim Carey did a bad job portraying Olaf (which might be a controversial opinion in itself, but I stick by it nonetheless. The biggest problems with that movie were not his acting.) That said, I think that Neil Patrick Harris (who henceforth I will type as NPH because I’m lazy) is doing Olaf much, much better.

The reason I say this is because NPH is able to pull back on the eccentricity a bit (which Jim Carey never attempts and thus is the reason so many people just hate his acting style) and deliver a performance that is both comical (as when Count Olaf is in disguise) and sinister–which is exactly what Count Olaf should be. Initially, I thought NPH might be pulling a bit from Carey’s original performance, but upon further reflection, I believe he’s pulling more from previous performances like Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog. With the help of the smarter writing this series has, Count Olaf has achieved the blend of ridiculous/ dastardly/ sinister/ intelligent that he was meant to have in the hands of NPH.

An Intro to the Blog

Greetings Future Audience!

So this is a joint blog between myself (Katelyn) and my boyfriend Zach. We are a couple of exceedingly nerdy and poor college grads who decided that we were both too damn funny to NOT have an audience.

We have plans to do a number of joint bits, like reviews and such, but we will also be uploading separate content because, though we share many interests, we also have a large variety of interests that just do not overlap. So look to Zach to be publishing thought pieces on works such as A Game of Thrones and DiscWorld. Look to me, on the other hand, oh you ladies and gents, to get your fix of the Victorian, the monstrous, the just-fucking-weird, and the romantic. I’ll be writing some pieces on Hannibal, Penny Dreadful, Star Trek: TNG, and will counter my boyfriend’s penchant to liken everything to Rome with one of my own: Frankenstein.

Content should be uploaded weekly. And once we get a handle on videos, videos will be coming to you too!

Live Long and Prosper,

Katelyn