Obamas Sign Deal to Produce Shows on Netflix

A very interesting announcement was made yesterday – the Obamas are coming back on stage, and not as a politician but as the main piece on Neflix as part of a new production company “Higher Ground Productions”. Never mind this apparently focus by ex-politicians to be “high” (James Comey’s book – A Higher Loyalty, Condoleezza Rice’s book – No Higher Honor), this is an amazing return to mainstream by Barack and Michelle Obama.

Perhaps they understand modern society better than I gave them credit for,  maybe they just really like TV, or they are taking a page out of Trump’s playbook. But Netflix has become very influential in American society. As of April this year, Netflix hit a global subscriber base of 125 million. Personal experience tells me that many users also share their account with a handful of others – so the reach is probably closer to somewhere around 250~300 million.

The latest and greatest on Netflix (and HBO Go) are a huge part of our conversations, our water cooler chats. And while Trump’s name has taken that mantle by being president, Obama might be able to take some of that spotlight by being on our televisions in a different way.

Also, the demographic of streamers must tend to be younger. This must be a tantalizing opportunity for the Obamas to still offer a place of dialogue for them in a controlled, lasting manner. Unlike Twitter posts, Netflix shows are viewed over a longer period of time and stay in the national conversation longer.

Apparently, being a TV star is something an ex-president can do.

 

Source: https://www.engadget.com/2018/04/16/netflix-subscriber-count-hits-125-million/

https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/05/22/613246456/obamas-sign-content-deal-with-netlfix-form-higher-ground-productions

Let’s Talk About RiME

I downloaded RiME as part of my video game grieving of God of War. After playing through a AAA masterpiece, it’s common for me to feel like other high budget games don’t quite meet my expectations. This included Watch Dogs 2, Last Guardian, and Final Fantasy XV – all great games that I want to finish at some point, but as soon as I booted up realized they did not have the polish and delivery of God of War.

So instead, I looked towards some indie games I had acquired through the PS Plus membership. ABZû was the first game for me to boot up as I remembered it being basically Flower underwater. I continued on from where my roommate had left off, and to our surprise, after about 20 minutes the credits were rolling – he had essentially beaten it before and hadn’t finished. It was a beautiful 20 minutes, but I do not have a lot to say since I didn’t really get to experience the game.

Next, I ended up starting RiME. The biggest draw to the game came from its calm music. After finishing God of War, I looked around to change my PS4 theme in boredom (it had been set to the God of War theme) – I happened to have the RiME theme for some reason (or maybe it was free?) so I tried it on and liked it for its music, ocean view, and the cute fox.

Upon starting the game, I was immediately greeted with some exceptional scores. The game begins with the player, a boy, drifting ashore to an island. The island is relatively unoccupied save some pigs, birds, and statues that respond to the boys singing.

The game does not hide it’s flaws. It’s mechanics are simple, there’s no combat to speak – some light platforming and puzzling exists. Lighting is hit and miss sometimes and the narrative is light.

However, the game successfully delivers on its goals through its thematic, symbolic presentation and music.

Spoilers ahead:

The game explores the concept of grieving. The relatively short game goes through the 5 stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. At first this was not very obvious. In fact, it was not very obvious what the story was about. There is a mysterious man who appears and disappears and a fox that leads the way. There are abrupt changes in the tone of the game as the chapters continue as well causing some confusion in the continuity.

But upon reflection, I think this game would have a profound impact on someone who has dealt with death in a loved one. It’s a careful representation of the 5 stages and captures the general emotions quite well. While it faces some technical problems, it’s one of those games that help elevate the genre to an art form.

 

 

Fees for Calling Cops

Trevor Noah had an interesting bit posted on YouTube regarding a fee for calling the cops that I thought was worth discussing.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

What he suggests here is that a lot of prank and non-police matter calls are made because there is very little consequence to calling 911. For sake of humor he disregards obstruction of justice. However, I do think his suggestion is relatively well-founded.

It’s well studied that even an incremental cost will change people’s behavior. Money has become one of the most powerful motivators in modern society. Even a dollar discourages a lot of behavior. Given that, Noah’s suggestion is simple, just bill the caller $5 and give it back if it was a legitimate call.

DailyShow
The Daily Show with Trevor Noah – Copyright The Daily Show

Now of course, that reimbursement might make it hard to actually get – but I’m not sure if that matter all that much. If the caller is poor and really needs the money, they will make sure to get it back. If automated reimbursements fail, a simple online or callbot system where you give a case number to get reimbursed might be sufficient. For the rich, they may ignore the fee and now the police department has more revenue it can use for public safety. And for the people who made an illegitimate call, at least the department gets something for their efforts.

Let’s Talk about Aggretsuko (2018)

Browsing through Netflix is a common occurrence for the bored in the 21st century. And that’s where I came across Aggretsuko. It’s colorful and simple art style and cute characters immediately caught my attention. After noticing that each episode is just 15 minutes long, and the season is 10 episodes – I decided I should give the show a try.

Aggretsuko is short for Aggressive Retsuko. It is one of Sanrio’s latest character creations (the company responsible for Hello Kitty, Keroppi, and Gudetama. The story follows Retsuko, 25 year old, female, red-panda working in the accounting division of a fictional Japanese company along with a colorful cast of pigs, foxes, hippos, and the like. The basic story arc follows Retsuko’s relatively normal corporate life (as they would be in Japan) as she learns to navigate various misgiving brought by her coworkers and life in general.

The quirk and charm of this character comes from her cute and unassuming looks during her normal mood, and relative easy-going if not pushover characteristics which suddenly turns to a death metal rage face and screaming that is always funny.

aggretsuko22
Calm Retsuko (left), Rage Retsuko (right) – Copyright Sanrio

The team’s director, Director Ton (ton means pig in Japanese Kanji), is regularly seen goofing off during work, preferring to practice his golf swings and passing his workload onto his subordinates. The first episode begins with him barraging Retsuko for dust on his desk, lack of flower decoration, and mediocre tea.

Fenneko (fennec fox) and Haida (hyena) are Retsuko’s closest allies and lunch buddies offering support in their unique ways. Fenneko is a cynic who is generally assured and straight-laced. She provides comedic relief with her eerie ability to stalk people on social media and her monotonic laugh. Haida is more attentive, caring for Retsuko’s wellbeing in a stereotypical shy-crush way. American viewers may find his antics a bit immature for someone who is supposed to represent a man in his professional career – but I found that his portrayal to be a commentary on the modern Japanese man.

I imagine that many Japanese businessmen and women might relative to the dramas portrayed in this short series. Many American viewers would find entertainment as well and it may serve as a comedic introduction to many of the societal differences presented in the daily lives of Japanese people. For about the length of a movie, Aggretsuko is a great series for some lighthearted, Japanese-inspired humor.

Victim-Shaming in Reporting

This morning there were reports of discriminatory actions taken on Yale University’s campus against a black graduate student by a fellow dormitory resident and the local police.

As I followed the story, I noticed something odd. The victim was clearly identified. Age, racial profile, name, gender, even area of study. However none of the aggressors of the story were being reported – just simply “a fellow resident” was how the initial caller was referred to. The police officers were not identified as well (although their actions were less clearly egregious. They made the victim wait an extra 15 minutes for confirmation of ID).

On a broader point, I would love to see news articles focus on the aggressor in these types of reports. The victim did very little wrong, so why profile them so much? Many people just want to move on and live their lives without the attention of the viral web. Instead, let’s focus on the offenders, they should be getting the higher level of scrutiny so that their actions are well known and recognized.

Edit: It looks like it took an extra day but the aggressor’s name is now being widely reported on news outlets like the Washington Post.

Source: https://nyti.ms/2KPQPyP

Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2018/05/10/a-black-yale-student-fell-asleep-in-her-dorms-common-room-a-white-student-called-police/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.449235594b2a

 

The Summer Blockbuster Season and MoviePass

TechCrunch reported today that since last Thursday (5/3) MoviePass’s parent company Helios & Matheson has lost over 63% of its stock value going down from $2.13 a share to $0.79.

For the unfamiliar, during the past 6-8 months, MoviePass has garnered a huge following and uptake in users by promising users access to a movie a day at theaters for a meager entry price of $10 a month.

Basically, at this pricing MoviePass losses money on every active user. If a user watches at least one movie at full price, that user is a cost not profit for the company. Add on top of that maintenance and development costs of the app as well as the physical shipping cost of the debit card – it’s a pretty strange business to be in.

The company claims that it can turn a profit by one of two ways. 1) By aggregating user data and selling it to interested parties. The company has demonstrated somewhat that push notifications and promotion on their platform can drive sales to a particular movie. It can, in theory, than drive movie advertisers to pay them a sum to be promoted to MoviePass users. 2) Somewhat like the gym membership model, they can have lots of registered users and hope they do not use the product – however at $10 a month this is not sustainable by the point above that every user is pretty much a loss.

So what’s in the future for the company? The $10 pricing tier may have to increase. Or additional limitations may have to be added like number of movies users can watch.

I believe that the next 2 to 3 months may be make it or break months for the company. Running at such heavy losses, the best thing that can happen for MoviePass is that Hollywood does not release movies worth watching. In essence, MoviePass has a strange relationship with the movie industry. For one, must-watch movies have to come out for customers to subscribe to the MoviePass service, however they should not be released often so the service is not used.

Here is the list of upcoming blockbusters:

  • May 18 – Deadpool 2
  • May 25 – Solo: A Star Wars Story
  • June 8 – Ocean’s 8
  • June 15 – Incredibles 2
  • June 22 – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
  • July 6 – Ant-Man and the Wasp

Of course this isn’t all the movies that is being released in the next coming weeks, but Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar (all Disney affiliates) are huge franchises that millions of viewers will go see in theaters.

Time will tell what happens to MoviePass.

Let’s Talk about God of War (2018)

The video game industry tends to hit its stride around the 4 to 5 year mark of a console generation. Since the PS4 launched in February of 2014, we are now beginning to see its peaks. God of War may be the first of the many great games to come in the next 2 to 3 years.

In what is now becoming a kind of corporate identity – the new God of War shifts the top down hack-and-slash style of the previous God of War entries in favor of a closer camera perspective. It seems like the success of games like The Last of Us may have encouraged many first party studios to introspect their existing franchises to bring a more realistic and mature experience.

This is a welcome change to the God of War franchise, a series that saw the formula fatigue quite a bit with the mulled reception of the previous entry God of War: Ascension. Cory Barlog and Santa Monica studio instead brings a captivating tale (by video game standards) of Kratos and his son, Atreus, navigating an unfamiliar Norse region.

Back during the first announcement at E3 2016, the decision to step away from Greek mythology to adopt Norse mythology was a curious, albeit an exciting one. Having grown up watching Disney’s Hercules as well as being exposed several Greek myths growing up with names like Zeus, Hades, and Hydra being familiar, the God of War series had felt comfortable in terms of world building.

Overall, the game does a great job celebrating the Norse mythos. In fact, for the uninterested, the heavy use of unfamiliar terms and names like Jötenheim, Jörmungandr, and Tyr may be off-putting and make the story harder to remember in the end. But to those slightly interested, I believe the game has done a great job introducing the deep lore of Norse mythology, one that now I see has heavily influenced a variety of western culture including the Lord of the Rings series and Marvel comics.

One thing that the game does exceptionally well is its combat design. The relatively sparse weapon options are well supported by a variety of runes that adjust Kratos’s attacks. The use of Atreus in combat feels deliberate and genuinely helpful. And unlike many Naughty Dog games, the lack of true stealth sections as well the fact that Kratos is in fact a god, makes he’s powerful nature and inhumane platforming abilities more believable. (Although the climbing sections where Kratos scales cliffs that protrude out seems ridiculous even by god standards).

Time will tell if this game is remembered as a classic. I do think that the story will fail to resonate as strongly with players who have yet to become fathers. I have noticed that many of the game’s reviewers have praised the writer’s handling of the parental dynamic, one that I am sure Barlog was able to leverage from first hand experience of being a relatively young father. Still, even for myself (who is not a father yet), the story succeeded in delivering a balanced and believable tale of parents who are struggling to communicate properly to their children and how lessons are sometimes taught by the children.

As Barlog says, the story is one of identity – how do we define ourselves. Are we defined by who our parents are? Are we defined by our actions?

I hope that the next God of War is not too far in the horizon. With the engine built and the AAA game industry largely unable to produce iterative games as it was a norm during the PS2 era, I hope Santa Monica studios breaks this trend as they have many other trends with this game (lack of DLC and loot boxes). A 2020 or early 2021 PS4 sequel would be an exciting way to end this console generation and this chapter of Kratos’s story.

Let’s Talk About Avengers: Infinity War

I have now watched the new Avengers movie twice now. And in between that time I have also rewatched Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2. I mention this because the second viewing made it even more apparent what an achievement in film Avengers: Infinity War is. Typically, the Guardians movies have had a very bright color palette, to bring out the otherworldly-ness of outer space. The most recent Thor movie, Thor: Ragnorok also shifted its colors to be brighter as well as its tone to be more comedic (compared to Thor: The Dark World which was almost “DC” dark).

Now, before I head into some things (and mostly criticisms) I noticed in my second viewing of Infinity War, I want to make fully clear I really enjoyed this movie. In terms of pure spectacle – it is certainly up there with the first Avengers movie and Captain America: Civil War. Obviously, the ending brings a much more somber and serious tone to the movies which makes it a little harder to be superhero excited about – but it was a very bold direction for the franchise which I very much appreciate. Overall the pacing of the movie was great and I must give my full appreciation to the Russo brothers for melding the different film styles and tones of the previous 18 movies into this great culmination.

That being said, the second viewing highlighted several weaknesses that I had not noticed at first viewing. Skipping the obvious criticism of Peter Quill’s decision to completely ruin the plan on Titan, I want to focus on the performance of Zoe Saldana as Gamora in the movie. There are two scenes where I felt she had really missed an opportunity to connect with the audience.

The first was the scene where Thanos plays a recording from the captured Nebula where Gamora is revealed to have lied about not knowing the location of the Soul Stone. This follows about 30 seconds after she has told Thanos that “on my life I swear I do not know where the Soul Stone is”. As the recording is playing Gamora is largely seen just staring in the distance/floor – almost as if she’s spacing out. This really broke my immersion into the scene as there should be some indication of shock and panic, but it almost seems as if there was no recording for Saldana to react to when the scene was being filmed.

The second scene is arguably more important as Gamora and Thanos find themselves on a cliff of Vormir, confronted with the revelation that a sacrifice of a loved one is required to obtain the Soul Stone. I blame the screenwriters more than Saldana for what transpires, as I feel the gloating feels rather inappropriate on second viewing, however I do think that Saldana’s performance lightens the scene unnecessarily. Instead of a bitter “you lose” it came off more as a “haha you lose!”

Also, another plot point that had me thinking was – what was the point of the neutron star realignment not working out the first time? Thanos seems to face very little obstacles during his conquest to obtain the remaining 5 Infinity Stones, however the heroes are faced with an abundance of bad luck. I feel like precious screen time could have been saved if Thor did not have to restart the forge twice.

Speaking of unnecessary scenes, there’s a short scene of the magician/wizard villian (apparently the “Ebony Maw”) flying into space frozen Han Solo, Empires Strikes Back, style. It stood out as B-movie the most.

Overall, the heroes are just very bad at being vigilant in the movie. Vision gets stabbed in the back like he was some pawn and not an all-knowing artificial intelligent being with the Mind Stone as part of his brain. Scarlett Witch gets sucker punched constantly when she could single-handly take down probably all the Thanos’ Children. Gamora almost willingly gets captured by Thanos on Knowwhere. Doctor Strange gets captured very easily in New York early in the movie.

Perhaps I should remember that this is after all, a comic book superhero movie.