Video Game Review: Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley

It’s been a long time since I’ve committed to playing a video game.  But somehow I’ve dedicated dozens of hours to building up a farm, interacting with neighbors, and exploring caves in Stardew Valley.  The first time I saw footage of Stardew Valley, I immediately thought of Harvest Moon, a fun farm simulator I played as a kid.  Stardew Valley feeds off of that nostalgia while building its own world.

The game doesn’t waste time with a long setup.  Fed up with corporate drone life, the protagonist moves to the quaint little town of Stardew Valley and inherits his (or her – you can customize your own avatar) grandfather’s farm.  After some quick introductions, the game allows the player to pursue his own ambitions.  On any given day the player can harvest crops, chop wood, go fishing, give gifts, feed barn animals, forage wild berries, pursue romantic interests, battle giant blobs, mine ore, and on and on.  What’s more, the game doesn’t push the player to engage in any one activity.  Rewards await those who explore everything Stardew Valley has to offer – keep a look out for Zelda-esque puzzles – but the game world is what you make of it.

Stardew Valley is a labor of love, and it shows.  The music is enjoyable and varies depending on seasons and settings.  The history of the land slowly unravels as books and artifacts are discovered.  One of my neighbors, an aspiring writer, once asked me about my favorite type of book.  I told him I liked science fiction.  Weeks later he invited me to a book reading for his sci-fi novel.  As I said, the game world is what you make of it.  And it’s a wonderful world.

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Best Eps: Breaking Bad – “One Minute”

Best Eps- Breaking Bad

In this feature I take a look at one episode that marks a high point in a television series.  It’s not necessarily the absolute best a series has to offer (that’s always debatable), but it’s an episode that remains lodged in memory long after I first watched it.

I know what you’re thinking.  “How could you not pick ‘Ozymandias’ as the best Breaking Bad episode?”  There’s no denying that “Ozymandias” is fantastic television, but it’s an episode that’s been talked about enough.  And from start to finish, “One Minute” is something special, even amongst other superb Breaking Bad episodes.

“One Minute” is bookended by two moments that define who Hank Schrader is.  At the start of the episode, Hank beats Jesse unconscious because he believes Jesse arranged a fake emergency call regarding Marie.  Hank instantly realizes his mistake in pummeling an unarmed man, and he alerts the authorities himself.  Hank is a good officer, and a good man, but after giving himself over to his rage, he knows his career as a DEA agent is over.

Of course, the other moment comes at the end of the episode with an assassination attempt on Hank’s life.  Hank had shown in earlier episodes that he suffers from PTSD, and he doesn’t revel in taking lives.  But like an old west gunslinger who never loses his touch, Hank is a dangerous man when cornered.  Director Michelle MacLaren directs the hell out of the final scene (I’d call her the best director the show had), and I still get chills when the cousin pulls a shining silver ax from the trunk of his car.  Hank prevails, though the last shot of a parking lot littered with bodies is chilling; it’s a Pyrrhic victory.

As if the action described above isn’t enough, there are more unforgettable scenes in “One Minute.”  Hank secretly weeping on Marie’s shoulder in the elevator is heartbreaking, and it says everything about their relationship and marriage.  Jesse has not one, but two monologues that show how frustrated he is at always being the fall guy for Walt.  I doubt that even Vince Gilligan expected Aaron Paul to grow into the actor he became while filming Breaking Bad.  After Jesse passionately rejects Walt’s offer to once again be partners, Walt speaks honestly, a rarity by this point in his life.  He says, “Your meth is good, Jesse.  As good as mine.”  The mentor-student relationship between Walt and Jesse anchors Breaking Bad, and in some ways, Walt’s words of praise mean more to Jesse than money ever could.

And hey, that goofball arms salesman was right about that hollow-point bullet.  “Sucker has six razor claws that expand upon impact.  Whew!  Shred your mama’s head like a cabbage.”

Other Best Eps candidates: “Dead Freight,” “Ozymandias,” “Salud”

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Movie Review: Creed

Creed

The Rocky franchise permeates my childhood memories.  I remember Rocky chasing a chicken, participating in a macho street fight, and of course I remember the exasperated Russian robot swearing that little Rocky is not a man, but a piece of iron.  That being said, nostalgia doesn’t overwhelm me when I think about Rocky.  It’s not one of my beloved franchises.

Director/screenwriter Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan have made me more excited about the Rocky universe (is everything a “universe” nowadays?) than I ever have been.  Coogler understands that the best sports movies are usually not about the sports involved.  Similar to the impressive Warrior, Creed is about relationships.  Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Jordan) struggles against a legacy he’s unsure he can live up to, that of his deceased father Apollo Creed.  Johnson seeks out his father’s rival Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), but the elder champion doesn’t always fit Johnson’s expectations or ideals.

Coogler deserves most of the credit for the film as a whole, but Jordan and Stallone riff off of each other like real family members, with love and tension resting close to the surface.  The reason Creed works so well is Coogler nails both the emotional and physical impacts of the story.  The boxing choreography is excellent, and Coogler isn’t afraid to pull the camera back and allow the audience to witness the boxers circling each other and swinging away.  Jordan performs his own stunts, and it pays off.  If you’re not tensed up and cheering for the young Creed by the end of the film, you’re bad at watching sports films.  I’m looking forward to watching more of Creed’s journey, and I hope Coogler returns to add more depth to the storied franchise.

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Top Ten: The Challenge Moments

The Challenge

Bill Simmons and I have something in common – we’re both big fans of MTV’s long running series The Challenge.  What started out as goofy fun has turned into something of a real sport (minus the pesky performance enhancing drug testing).  Most adults, I’m sure, grow out of watching MTV reality shows, which is why YouTube comments of Challenge videos often go something like this: “I miss these Challenges.  This is the last time they had a great cast!”  I do miss the silly Challenge seasons of yore, but the current seasons filled with backstabbing and manipulation carried out by cast members desperate for a big payout are enjoyable in a different way.

Whether your last favorite season actually featured cast members of Road Rules, or you’ve witnessed Johnny Bananas’ rise from raspy voiced youngster to the self-proclaimed champ, there’s sure to be something on this list for you.  Without further ado, here are my top ten moments of The Challenge.

Top Ten- The Challenge Moments 10

10. Sarah Hangs Tough Against Irulan – The Gauntlet (2004)

The Challenge can be a cruel game.  When a team senses weakness, they’re quick to throw that weakness to the wolves.  Sarah was far from the best player on the Road Rules team on the original season on The Gauntlet, so she became the resident whipping girl.  Sarah entered the Gauntlet four times and sent four Real World cast members packing before facing off with Irulan in one last Gauntlet.  This did not end well for Irulan.  Sarah hung cool, like a zen bat, and she defeated her opponent.

Sarah later commented, “I am not a winner.  I haven’t been a winner my entire life.”  Except that she sent five people home and won the grand prize alongside her teammates.  Yeah, Sarah, you are a winner.

Top Ten- The Challenge Moments 09.jpg

09. Jordan Falls Before the Wall – Free Agents (2014)

Jordan was right to think that sending Johnny Bananas home early from the Free Agents competition was a fine idea.  Jordan was wrong to think volunteering to battle the four-time champ in an elimination was the way to accomplish that.  The number one rule of The Challenge is stay out of elimination rounds if at all possible.  Jordan broke that rule and flipped all the kill cards, and what’s worse, the elimination involved using hands and feet to break through a climbing wall.  With only one fully formed hand, Jordan had just enough trouble creating handholds to see his enemy climb away with the win.

During an argument earlier in the season Johnny told Jordan, “I will fucking end you, dude.”  And he did.  He also won the season in his most laborious victory to date.

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Music Review: Saves the Day – In Reverie

Saves the Day - In Reverie

Maybe I thought Stay What You Are would be too difficult to top.  Maybe seeing Chris bopping along to the beat in the “Anywhere with You” music video turned me off.  But the most likely reason it took me ten years from the release date to finally listen to In Reverie is that buying music costs lots of money for a broke student, and I had to be selective.  Either way, there’s no good excuse to put off listening to such a likable album.

I’m sure some people listen to In Reverie and really connect to certain songs, much like I connected to “Banned from the Back Porch” and “Firefly” in my youth.  I’ll admit I haven’t found such a connection with this album.  Chris Conley’s lyrics are wispy, featuring plenty of vague references to light, the moon, the sea, but the words just blow in and drift away.

But who cares?  I can start In Reverie at track one and enjoy it all the way through (actually, let’s skip “She” though ‘cause it slows things down a bit much).  Forget about the lyrics – this album is all about the sound.  The whiney highs of “Rise,” the rough guitar edges of “Where Are You,” and the elegiac shadow of “Tomorrow Too Late” are what make In Reverie good, if not great.  I listen to these songs like a child, admiring the surface without worrying about the depth.  And I’ll be bopping along to these tunes for years.

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Book Review: Aziz Ansari – Modern Romance

Aziz Ansari - Modern Romance

Swiping?  Ghosting?  Sexting?  There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to dating in the age of Tinder and the dozens of other online dating hubs.  Thankfully, Aziz Ansari is as interested in dating as he is in fine dining.

In Modern Romance Aziz, along with sociologist Eric Klinenberg, seeks to understand the evolving world of dating.  Not so long ago people coupled up simply by poking their heads out their windows to see who lived next door.  Now it’s almost expected that we find “the one,” someone who completes us (see: Jerry Maguire) and figures into an overlong love story for future generations (see: How I Met Your Mother).

Aziz is as intrigued and captivated by relationships and dating apps as anyone else who’s swam in the dick pic infested waters of digital courtship, and therein lies the book’s greatest strength.  Aziz is an active participant, eagerly researching and learning right along with us.  He helps to illuminate truths that seem obvious after the fact.  The humor sometimes falls flat, but it’s more difficult to be funny on the page than it is on the stage.

The next time you get ghosted – that’s when a romantic interest disappears like an aloof Casper – turn to Modern Romance.  Because even when you’re confused, hurt, and alone (eating comfort tacos, natch), you’ll be assured of one thing: at least Aziz understands.

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Best Eps: Party Down – “Pepper McMasters Singles Seminar”

Best Eps- Party Down

In this feature I take a look at one episode that marks a high point in a television series.  It’s not necessarily the absolute best a series has to offer (that’s always debatable), but it’s an episode that remains lodged in memory long after I first watched it.

Party Down is a short lived comedy series starring Adam Scott that not enough people watched.  Every episode follows the characters, employees of a substandard catering company, as they “work” an event (to be fair, they do work but they also find time to smoke pot and have sex while on the clock).  The series takes place in L.A., so of course most of the employees are also unknown actors no one cares about.

“Pepper McMasters Singles Seminar” follows the classic Party Down formula: Henry (Scott) and Casey flirt like teenagers, Kyle and Roman aggravate each other, and Ron tries to maintain some semblance of control.  But Constance (Jane Lynch) is the real star of this episode and the series as a whole.  She claims that “you’re as young as you feel,” but she’s also unabashedly disgusted by old people looking for love (or, as Constance visualizes it, “wrinkled parts pounding against wrinkled parts… blech”).  So when her former flame Bruce attempts to rekindle their love affair, Constance flees from his wrinkled face.  But when that wrinkled old flame collapses, seemingly dead, she mounts his body and screams, “I’m too young!  You can’t die!”

Kyle’s revenge plot against Roman falls a bit flaccid, but no big deal.  Because Casey finally ditches her drag of a husband and immediately leaps into Hendry’s waiting arms.  Oh, and thank God for Ron (the second best character of the series).  He’s the least inspirational boss after Michael Scott, and his “straight talk” story about a footless friend only elicits laughter.

Adam Scott and Jane Lynch should get high in bathrooms more often.  That should be every TV episode ever.

Other Best Eps candidates: “Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh,” “Jackal Onassis Backstage Party”

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Music Review: A Great Big Pile of Leaves – The Fiery Works II

A Great Big Pile of Leaves - The Fiery Works II

Brooklyn, New Yorkers Pete Weiland and Tyler Soucy, otherwise known as A Great Big Pile of Leaves, have returned with a sequel to their first release aptly titled The Fiery Works II. And, like before, they are offering this EP on their website as a free download. You can’t ask for a better deal than that, so how about you go download The Fiery Works II right now, then come back and finish reading this review? Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Are you listening? Good.

For those not in the know, these two fellas recorded The Fiery Works releases as DIY projects with Weiland covering guitar, bass, and vocals while Soucy played drums and worked on recording and production (with The Fiery Works II Soucy also took a swing as mastering). Granted I haven’t listened to The Fiery Works as much as The Fiery Works II, but I quickly established the latter as the superior EP.

An instrumental track titled “sleepsleepsleep” starts The Fiery Works II off, and though it fits the mood of the album, I’ve been known to skip over it on repeat listens. The band hits their stride once Weiland’s high-pitched voice breaks in; he has a better grasp of his own vocal ability on this EP compared to The Fiery Works, and his range is especially impressive as he sings background for himself on “Drought of Snow” (more on this track in a bit). The sound of the EP is relaxed alternative/melodic rock that isn’t boring. Comparisons have been made between A Great Big Pile of Leaves and acts such as Minus the Bear and The Appleseed Cast. I’ll admit I’m not familiar with those artists, so I checked out some of their songs on Myspace to hear for myself. The comparisons seem fair, but I should point out A Great Big Pile of Leaves also have a pop flair that makes them easily accessible.

Reading over the lyrics I’ve found multiple references to the outdoors and the feelings the changing weather and seasons bring. Such is the case with “Bring Back Recess” in which Weiland sings, “It’s going to be a lovely day / Despite all the sunlight getting in the way,” an appealing sentiment to people like me who appreciate cloudy days. This outdoor-centric pattern continues in the previously mentioned song “Drought of Snow”: “Missing the snowflake on the tip of the tongue / That tasted of all that I have ever known to love / Stay outside all day / Never go inside.” These are the kind of words that should be fed to kids who keep themselves caged in with television and video games when there’s a world outside waiting for them.

At first I accepted The Fiery Works II as an enjoyable EP lacking standout tracks. But I have found on repeat listens that the EP builds itself song-by-song until it culminates with “Drought of Snow.” The combination of Weiland’s high backing vocals and an assisting trumpet raise the song to a new high for the band; everything works so well together in this song.

I usually strain in adding length to a review, but it seems I’ve overstayed my welcome this time, so here’s a quick closing statement. I wish more bands would offer their releases as free downloads – exposure is key in such a cluttered market. But even if free downloads were the norm, The Fiery Works II would still stand apart as a special five-track set.

This review was originally posted at absolutepunk.net on May 24, 2008.

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Movie Review: Under the Skin

Under the Skin Movie Poster

I love science fiction that doesn’t fall over trying to explain itself to the audience. It simply is. Under the Skin is that kind of science fiction. I won’t spoil any of the plot (it’s captivating and unsettling), but I’m glad Scarlett Johansson took a chance on this role. This is certainly one of her better performances.

Under the Skin won’t appeal to everyone, including science fiction fans. Watching the movie is like walking through a darkened, unfamiliar hallway searching for a light switch. That being said, it’s not a frustrating walk, and the mystery is worth unraveling. The special effects deserve commendation; they are quite eerie and used sparingly. I didn’t think I was familiar with any of Jonathan Glazer’s other work until I read that he directed Radiohead’s music video for “Karma Police.” It’s a fitting analog.

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Seasons and Change

People ask me why I’ve chosen to live a life without roots. Why keep changing jobs? Why keep moving? Don’t you like a town/city/state enough to stay in it?

I spent years living in Texas, and though I love the state, it’s such a small part of a wider world. Moving to the Outer Banks in North Carolina gave me a chance to see the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. I swam in the blue and didn’t even get nudged by a shark (thankfully).

Now I’m in Nuevo Mexico, the land of green chile. I was finishing up work on a particularly cold day when snow began drifting down from the overcast sky. On the walk to my car I opened my mouth like a little boy to catch a flake or two on my tongue. As I drove home, closer to the Sandia Mountains and higher in elevation, I saw something that gave me a big goofy grin. Inside a schoolyard kids were rolling up a snowman. A snowman! I’ve never seen anything like it.

That’s why I’m living this life. Sure, I’ll settle down and grow roots eventually. But for now I have this, and along the way I’m becoming more of the person I want to be.

Snow in Albuquerque

“Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowin’ / I took a wrong turn and I just kept goin’.” – Springsteen

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