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Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Hateful Eight (2015) - Film Review

Quentin Tarantino is a LEGEND. It began with Reservoir Dogs in 1992 and followed by Pulp Fiction in 1994. Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, his resumé of films guaranteed the success of this one. He's been as funny and cool in recent years as he's been since the 90's, so OBVIOUSLY this was gonna be cool.

I kept waiting for that moment when all the awesome set-up, drawn-out dialogue and motley crew of characters comes together to reach that OH DAMN! moment.

What would a Tarantino film be without his blue-eyed boy, Samuel L. Jackson? He plays a grizzly (and very cool) Civil War hero named Major Marquis Warren. The cast includes impressive performances from Kurt Russell as John Ruth, another bounty hunter as well as a Tarantino favourite, Michael Madsen. Tim Roth (from T.V. series Lie To Me) makes an appearance too, and the cast is rounded out by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who performs the role of a real BITCH with some aplomb.

It's a Wyoming Western. Sort of. A Civil War Western, to be more precise, complete with racism and sexism of the most violent kind. I can see why it was rated R18. It turns into a murder mystery, with participants trapped in Minnie's Haberdashery (a guesthouse, or what passed for one back then) during a blizzard. No one can leave, so they're all trapped with a murdering bitch and someone who's secretly in cahoots with her. She's the prize of, and chained to, bounty hunter Kurt Russell, but her compatriot(s) is responsible for intense mayhem. Special mention must be made here of the eerie masterpiece soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. I'd never heard of him, but he's an Italian old-school maestro who's pushing 90. It's all original and expertly executed.

So when Tarantino hit me with a surprising twist towards the end, gosh I was very interested to see how it unfolded. FINALLY! The film becomes interesting. I was disappointed. It's not even worthy of being a twist. The whole movie feels like a drag, especially at 3 hours. Richard warned me of the running time before the start, but I still felt unprepared. It goes on. And on. You wait for something cool, then after an hour or two, you give up. It's 3 hours of pointless drivel. I guess it's meant to be entertaining, but I could think of FAR better ways to spend 3 hours. To be fair, there are a few classic Tarantino bits where you can't help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. Few and far between though.

Whereas Django Unchained, to take another of Tarantino's racism-themed films, has a very natural plot tension curve, this does not. It's supposed to gradually rise in the beginning, followed a dramatic spike and then relax a little, only to build to a crescendo at the very end. Like when Django smashes some Nazi henchmen, frees all the slaves and blows up the mansion. I dunno what this was. 

It drags on forever, then builds to a modicum of tension. The tensest moment for me was just before the plot twist reveal, at roughly 2 hours or so. Then it just plunges. There's NOTHING but relief at the end. Unsatisfying, and possibly Tarantino's worst work. It hurts saying that, but you can't do otherwise. Lame.


Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Big Short (2015) - Film Review

I'm lucky. In many ways, but particularly the fact that I get to watch lotsa Wall Street films with a stockbroker and his wife. This was a big one. It's about the crisis surrounding the housing bubble of 2008 and why it caused the downfall of so many. It was based on the bestselling novel by Michael Lewis. The stockbroker was around to explain difficult concepts to a schmuck like me.

Talk about an ensemble cast... This was more star-studded and glittery than a Princess Barbie Prom Party! Christian Bale as Mike Burry. Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett. Steve Carell as Mark Baum. Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert. Maybe these names mean something to you, maybe they don't. I can tell you that particularly Steve Carell was excellent in his role and was responsible for many laugh-out-loud moments.

So what do we say about the plot? I've been informed that it was true to real life in almost every way. That's good. What did I learn from the film? I didn't know at all how the banks messed up so badly before I watched the film. Gosh, they were screwing the guy on the street. They have this thing called CDOs - Collateralized Debt Obligations. 

The earliest CDOs were constructed in 1987 by assembling portfolios of junk bonds issued by different companies. Securities firms subsequently launched CDOs for a number of other assets with predictable income streams, such as car loans, student loans etc. However, CDOs remained a niche product until 2003-04, when the U.S. housing boom led the parties involved in issuing CDOs to turn their attention to sub-prime mortgage-backed securities as a new source of collateral for CDOs.

In the mid 2000s CDOs exploded in popularity, with CDO sales rising almost 10-fold from $30 billion in 2003 to $225 billion in 2006! These CDOs are basically tranches that are too junky and risky to sell to investors on their own, all thrown together into one big cesspool, which THEN becomes ok and reasonable(!).

If you don't understand at least that little bit, you're not going to fully grasp the film. They still tried to make it entertaining and understandable for the masses though. What I found particularly interesting were the segues from the main storyline to someone like world-renowned chef, Anthony Bourdain, explaining an investment-related topic. It was cleverly and rather creatively done.

The soundtrack was unobtrusive, but the makeup was super! They made it look like Christian Bale had a glass eye, and gave Steve Carell a Jewish haircut that really suited him and made his character more believable. Everyone fit their personas magnificently. :-) Sure, it's not gonna win the Best Makeup Oscar, but I like little touches like that.

Overall, they made a real life drama as exciting as they could. A film like Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is infinitely more glamorous and exciting, but you can't fault the film for that. I enjoyed it and can honestly say that I was never bored.


Thursday, 31 December 2015

2016 - My Resolutions

I'm having a fantastic time in Hermanus, as always! It never disappoints.

Happy New Year! May 2016 always be a very fond memory for you guys. I look forward to it being one of my best years, and I hope it's the same for you.


Before I list my resolutions, let me quickly review what I once learned to be a SMART goal.
  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound
I might not have put down the specific details in full of each and every goal, but ALL of these are far more than just pie-in-the-sky, trust me.

Without further delay, my list:
  • Count the Calories
    • I aim for 1800 calories a day, and track this using the Health app on my phone. Before my next meal, I make sure that I'm up-to-date and have added the data manually. Even estimating the calories is better than just munching haphazardly, and makes you more aware of what's going in your body. 
  • Join Virgin Active
    • I've been putting this off for long enough, but I have no more excuses with the gym in my office park combined with my Discovery Vitality membership.
  • 10000 Steps a Day
    • More Apple Health app tracking, but this time it's automatic. I think this is a great way to maintain overall health and seems challenging, but realistic based on my 9000 average over the last month or so.
  • Vitality Apple Watch
    • I've been made aware of a deal where you can get this for a ridiculously cheap price and just have to set and reach your goals over a period of time. It obviously makes sense for Discovery to promote this, and I'm someone who would actually have the self-discipline to stick to my goals.
  • Prototype #Grog1699
    • I have come up with some solid ideas over the December break, and wanna put this into action.
  • Play 50 New Games
    • I wanna take my developing role as game designer far more seriously than before, and I have to get to know the market for this to succeed.
  • Theory/Design/Play
    • A further complement of my game design goals, I want to work through The Rules of Play and spend an hour designing every week.
  • Get a raise by the end of May, or start looking for a new job.
    • I do enjoy my job and it's incredibly stimulating, but I earn very little compared to my peers and especially considering my skill-set.
  • Renovate and sell my flat
    • This is part of the mission of living on my own again. Although the flat's been in the market for nearly two months now, there's a lot of little things I can fix cheaply which should make it far more attractive to potential buyers.
  • Cook 10 Banting recipes from Low-Carb is Lekker
    • I received an awesome recipe book for Christmas. This coincides with my health and lifestyle goals and learning to cook Banting food properly also gels with living on my own again. Makes sense.
  • 30 29 Blog Entries
    • I definitely want to write more. It's helped me in the past and it can help me this year. It's fun with the correct approach and completes me as a human being. Win-win.
  • 30kg Bench Press within 3 months
    • I want to focus on 3 exercises above all the others I do, the deadlift, bar squat and bench press. This is to develop overall body strength. I don't have much experience with the deadlift and bar squat so it doesn't make sense to set goals for them now. I currently bench 24kg for 35 repetitions. I know this seems like very very little, but I maintain perfect form and trust me, it's DIFFICULT for me to push the bar up from touching my chest. I can think of a number of reasons why, but none of those matter.
The only person I need to be better than, is the person I was YESTERDAY. :-)

Monday, 21 December 2015

The Force Awakens...

It came. After many years. I saw it. It did not conquer my heart.

Not quite, but it came damn close! I salute director J.J. Abrams and his team for delivering a success. They certainly had all the odds against them.

The opening battle didn't thrill me. As a designer, I'd have started a little more dramatically after the audience had waited for 40-odd years. However, Sith master Kylo Ren/Ben was initially very impressive. I loved his design, with the voice being OMG-cool!

Soon, things start feeling a bit familiar with FN-2781/Finn and his exploits aboard the First Order battleship where he rescues Resistance pilot Poe Dameron. This feeling progresses when we're shown scavenger Rey's exploits on Jakku, a planet very much like Tattooine. We identify with the mission of the lovable BB8-droid entrusted with the map to Luke Skywalker's location.

We are FIRMLY back in the saddle shortly thereafter. Han Solo and Chewbacca show up to re-take control of the Millennium Falcon. Harrison Ford plays his role extremely well, and Chewie is awesome as always. At times, he provides some comic relief.

Overall, the tone of the film is nowhere near as dark and gritty as I would have liked. Sure, there are some chilling "Heil Hitler!" Stormtrooper scenes, but they're few and far-between. Then again, that's probably personal preference. I would have enjoyed if it were similar to The Dark Knight reboots. Having said that, there are a few moments when X-Wings swoop in that had me going, "Hellyeah!" The explosions and special effects are as orgasmic as you'd expect.

The plot and storyline are similar to something I could have easily dreamed up on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Not great. They just go for what's easy and guaranteed to be popular. Having said that, I did enjoy most of the flashbacks to past memories like General Leia Organa. So, the storyline's not awesome, but its execution is near flawless. BIG budget and grand. Star Wars is always epic in scale, and The Force Awakens was no exception.

I enjoyed it. I didn't really expect to. Pretty good acting overall, excellent costume design and a super setup for the future. They certainly have the platform for a marvellous story in years to come.

Let's hope so.

One minor gripe; the film dragged on past several poignant potential endings. That alone gets a -1.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Agent CODENAME: Hitman 47

I'm just playing, of course it's Hitman: Agent 47. Or just Agent 47 according to Ster Kinekor's app. Anyway—

I saw it today along with Richard and Lindsey. It was vaguely entertaining. I'll touch on two major flaws, along with one good point about the film in my review.

Let's start with the plot. What can we say about it? Hitman has to kill a megalomaniac world leader and retrieve a nuke to stop him from blowing up the world! No wait, that's not it. He has to travel back in time to—

Ok, I confess. I didn't really get the plot. I'm sure Richard would be disappointed here. To sum it up, there's a girl. She was created and genetically mutated to be paranoid by her father, an evil scientist who mellowed out like a hippie with orchids 'n' stuff in Singapore when he got older and developed lung cancer. People from Syndicate want him, because he's the only one who knows how to make new super soldiers, or AGENTS. Zachary Quinto's character has to stop Agent 47 from killing him because Syndicate need him. Quinto first befriends Quatre-Vingt -Dix, or Katia and appears to try save her from the presumed bad guy, the Agent. You see, she's Ciarán Hinds' (the evil scientist's) daughter. Or Quinto's the bad guy?

I dunno, the plot's a mess. At some point in the movie, you start to realise that anything is possible. ANYTHING. Agent 47's mother is actually Katia's Polish live-in seamstress. Or Katia is capable of psionic domination of Serbians. Or whatever. I guess it doesn't really matter. It feels like an excuse for a skop-skiet-en-donner film.

And that it is. And that's its best quality. It never really bores you. Sure, many of the fight scenes (and there are a lot) might leave you thinking, "LOL. That'd never happen in real life," but they'd never bore you. The action proceeds at a truly breakneck pace, and the production values are high. Every blow feels crushing and high-octane. 

I'm not sure the movie was very expensive to shoot, but it doesn't feel cheap. I'm sure the Audi sponsorship they got (people who've seen it will know what I mean) helped a lot financially. Sweet but unobtrusive soundtrack too. The ending is satisfying and feels like it was scripted by a professional. It hit all the right notes.

That's the good stuff out the way. Now I can go wild.

So it's as over-the-top as a good comic book. Except a comic book is utterly fantastical from the beginning. It never even approaches realism. This felt like a weird mix of pseudo-realistic action, and balls-to-the-wall unrealistic fantasy. Should I have suspended my disbelief more? Perhaps. I feel like it's up to the film you're watching to help you with that. That's Major Flaw #1.

Major Flaw #2 - Agent 47 is the perfect soldier. He's faster, more intelligent and more resourceful than any normal human. He feels no fear. He feels no emotion.

Neither does the audience. There's a scene near the end where they're standing in an elevator cocking their pistols and getting ready for action. They're meant to look cool and hardcore. I'm sorry. I cared infinitely more about the Terminator, a robot, than these two. I just didn't connect with them. Don't get me wrong, Rupert Friend does a brilliant job of playing the Agent. I just didn't care because he'd never care. He's almost too believable. It's a weird feeling to describe.

It's a fun movie nonetheless. It won't leave you feeling super unsatisfied. You just won't care too much.


Saturday, 29 August 2015

Grog 1699 Game Design - What would you do differently?

With the advent of Black Sails on the History channel (186 on DStv), I'm reinvigorated in my desire for this to be a success. You can bet your socks there will be both Billy Bones and Captain Flint characters.

If you have any feedback on the process I'm using to design Grog 1699 (working title) don't hesitate to let me know. Let's go into the first stage of Grog 1699 a bit.

It would be called something akin to "Recruit and Equip."

"Recruit and Equip 
Setting: Port (Town)Goal: Assemble your crew and equip your shipChallenge: Attaining the goal while everyone is trying to get the best crew members and equipment. It will require careful management of time and money. I'm keen to include an element of gambling in this portion. Perhaps a card mini-game against pirates in a tavern? Something like that."

This phase would start with all the seafarer cards laid out in the centre of the table. Perhaps there would be around 50 in the final version of the game, but I'm aiming for 20 for the prototype. Drafting then takes place à la Dota 2. So we would have team 1 going, "I'll ban that hero from being drafted." Team 2 responds with, "Sure, we'll ban that hero then."

After this is done twice, each team picks a hero to play with. The strategic implications of the banning rounds are huge. You could aim to prevent certain strategies, strategically limit options with the aim of forcing a certain grouping etc. The possibilities are endless.

The order is this:
Team 1 Ban
Team 2 Ban
Team 1 Ban
Team 2 Ban
Team 1 Pick
===Here Team 2 gets 2 consecutive picks to make up for not getting the first overall pick
Team 2 Pick
Team 2 Pick
Team 1 Pick
Team 1 Ban
Team 2 Ban
Team 2 Pick
Team 1 Pick
Team 1 Ban
Team 2 Pick
Team 2 Ban
Team 1 Pick

The big difference here compared to Dota is that only 4 heroes get recruited. The final member of the team has to be obtained from the Barracks or Tavern.

After the drafting phase, I envision that these 4 buildings will come into play:
  • Tavern
    • The undrafted pirates are shuffled and three random pirates will be placed face-down here. Only by spending a turn visiting the tavern would you get a peek at the three. 
  • Barracks
    • All the remaining pirates are imprisoned here. One pirate is revealed every turn. If not recruited, he goes to a pile of pirates that will be released soon, and can be recruited by anyone stopping at the Barracks. Everyone can see these pirates.
  • Armory
    • This is the "shop" of the game. You can buy five items per turn, and there is a limited stock available. Considering you're gonna have 5 pirates on your team, you'd be aiming for around 15 items or so. I would have to design a list of around 45 equipment to make this a strategic choice. The items would be divided into Mundane, Uncommon and Magical. The pricing would be of such a nature that a team could afford a maximum of 5 Magical items with no other equipment. This wouldn't normally be a successful strategy, so maybe the team would rather go for 2 Magical items, 5 Uncommon items and 10 Mundane items to be distributed among the 5 pirates.
  • Docks
    • Naturally, this where you purchase your vessel. The ship would have stats such as Durability, Speed, Firepower and Crew (the support guys other than the main 5 pirates). On top of that, I'm aiming for a choice of around 7 unique layout designs. In this way, the ships essentially become the terrain for the ensuing battles. For example, one ship would have 3 defensive battlements, 2 sails and 4 cannon positions. Maybe that qualifies it as a defensive juggernaught, compared to a vessel sporting 4 sails, 1 defensive battlement and 0 cannon positions. This would be a speedy runner-type vessel.
It occurs to me that it would be more interesting from a commander's point of view to have the ability to split up your crew into various vessels than to pack them all on the same one. That way, you could have one battleship supported by maybe two lighter ships. You'd pack 3 heavy dudes on the battleship and some support characters on the little ships.

Gosh, I'm a tiny bit intimidated by how quickly this game seems to be growing in scope. That's both good and bad. The life-blood of games is decisions the players make. At this point, we're in no danger of having too few choices for the player. We are in danger of the scope of the game creeping out of control to the point where it's no longer fun for a newcomer to play, much like Dota.

This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that players have to cooperate in their teams in order to strive for success. It is definitely not an individual endeavour. It strikes me that I would have to prevent the more experienced players from making all the possible decisions for the team.

I'm working on a basic map prototype of the naval phase of the game, and will hopefully post that next time.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Game Design: #Grog1699

Things are finally moving out of my head and onto the page with the Grog 1699 design. Through these entries, you can be a companion to the design process.

Where do I start?

I've already mentioned the basic premise for the game here

Let's move onto solid ground. I'm starting with the characters to be included in the game. I'm thinking a list of roughly 20 or so famous seafarers should be a great start towards the inevitable prototype.

The ones I want to introduce today, are:
  • William Kidd
  • Calico Jack "Jack Rackham"
  • Blackbeard "Edward Teach"

William Kidd:

"Captain William Kidd (c. 22 January 1645 – 23 May 1701) was a Scottish sailor who was tried and executed for piracy after returning from a voyage to the Indian Ocean. Some modern historians deem his piratical reputation unjust, as there is evidence that Kidd acted only as a privateer. Kidd's fame springs largely from the sensational circumstances of his questioning before the English Parliament and the ensuing trial. His actual depredations on the high seas, whether piratical or not, were both less destructive and less lucrative than those of many other contemporary pirates and privateers."

Awesome! There's fantastic stuff to work with here, specifically his character motivation for existing in the game. He wants to clear his name, but time and time again he just falls into the lure of, "Oh gosh. I guess I have to be a bastard about this, and PLUNDER!!" Or is that just the gossip about him? /cue dramatic film trailer music/



However, for the game, we can forget the last line of the Wikipedia entry. Obviously his depredations will be glorified. :-)

Calico Jack:

"John Rackham (26 December 1682 – 18 November 1720[1]), commonly known as Calico Jack, was an English pirate captain operating in the Bahamas and in Cuba during the early 18th century (Rackham is often spelled as Rackam or Rackum in historical documentation, and he is also often referred to as Jack Rackham). His nickname derived from the calico clothing he wore, while Jack is a nickname for John."

Active towards the end (1718–20) of the "Golden Age of Piracy" (which lasted 1650 to 1730), Rackham is most remembered for two things: the design of his Jolly Roger flag, a skull with crossed swords, which contributed to the popularization of the design, and for having two female crew members, Mary Read and his lover Anne Bonny."

Yay! This gives us two more members of the Grog 1699 cast! More importantly, cool chicks too! Mary Read and Anne Bonny. I'll cover them in future.

SIDE NOTE: Calico Jack was the first real pirate figurine/toy I got as a tiny boy. I remember him clearly. :-)

Of course, he's a very famous name in pirate circles. His fame *almost* borders on, "Too cheesy for inclusion. :-/ " I picture him as a vagabond/renegade/young-blood character. Also, doesn't the "Golden Age of Piracy" sound awesome??


"Edward Teach (also Edward Thatch, c.1680—22 November 1718), better known as Blackbeard, was a notorious English pirate who operated around the West Indies and the eastern coast of the American colonies. Although little is known about his early life, he was probably born in Bristol, England. He may have been a sailor on privateer ships during Queen Anne's War before settling on the Bahamian island of New Providence, a base for Captain Benjamin Hornigold, whose crew Teach joined sometime around 1716. Hornigold placed him in command of a sloop he had captured, and the two engaged in numerous acts of piracy. Their numbers were boosted by the addition to their fleet of two more ships, one of which was commanded by Stede Bonnet, but toward the end of 1717 Hornigold retired from piracy, taking two vessels with him."

Is he the most famous pirate name ever? Possibly. Nevertheless, he just oozes machismo. An important consideration is to make him cool but balanced. This also gives us yet another cool pirate to include...the teacher/mentor/sensei of Blackbeard, Captain Hornigold.

So what will these characters do?
The three phases of the game will be

Recruit and Equip
Setting: Port (Town)
Goal: Assemble your crew and equip your ship
Challenge: Attaining the goal while everyone is trying to get the best crew members and equipment. It will require careful management of time and money. I'm keen to include an element of gambling in this portion. Perhaps a card mini-game against pirates in a tavern? Something like that.

Sail and Fight
Setting: The high seas
Goal: Get to the island as quickly as possible, and delay anyone who's also going for the treasure.
Challenge: Again, time pressure balanced with crew strength. You need to decide when to go for it. Combat against others is obvious.

Find the Treasure!
Setting: The island
Goal: Treasure
Challenge: Actually finding the elusive treasure, running into rivals, dead ends, traps, etc.

I reckon it's important to just throw ideas out there and adjust as I go on, so the ones I'm proposing at the moment are:

Types of Character:
First Mate
Master Gunner

Character Attributes:

Hence, Blackbeard and William Kidd will fulfill the role of Captain. I reckon Calico Jack might be a Swashbuckler, or maybe a Captain. I dunno yet.
Their respective ratings, out of 6, for the attributes:

2 - Discipline
4 - Pathfinding
5 - Luck
6 - Firepower
5 - Toughness
Total - 22

Calico Jack
1 - Discipline
3 - Pathfinding
6 - Luck
5 - Firepower
3 - Toughness
Total - 18

William Kidd
5 - Discipline
5 - Pathfinding
1 - Luck
3 - Firepower
6 - Toughness
Total - 20

Their equipment AND abilities will be added on top of that, not to mention the ships they'd be competing for, giving us a wealth of options. I'm excited!