Game of Thrones – Season Four, Episode Five

game_of_thrones_s3We have reached the midpoint of the season at last. Just five more episodes to go before we are finished with A Storm of Swords and no doubt have to look forward to another year’s worth of waiting! But I’m sure the fans will all find something else to watch while they wait. Cable television is good like that! In the meantime, this week’s episode was largely a pacing one, providing some updates on the course of the season four story arc, and a little resolution of its own.

In the former category, this included Tommen’s coronation as kingĀ  the preparations for Tyrion’s trial, Sansa arriving at the Eyrie with Lord Petyr Baelish, Daenerys settling in as Queen of Mereen, Arya and Sandor’s journey through the Riverlands, and Pod and Brienne’ search for Sansa. In the latter case, the resolution came in the form of Jon Snow arriving in the north to deal with the threat of the mutineer’s at Craster’s Keep…

First of his Name:
GOT4_5_1The episode opens in the Throne Room at King’s Landing, where Tommen is being crowned King of the Andals, First Men, and all of Westeros. Cersei and Margaery use the occasion to discuss what comes next, which is the marriage of her to Tommen. Shortly after, she meets with her father to discuss the possible preparations, and it is agreed they will marry within a fortnight, and she will marry Ser Loras a fortnight thereafter. The subject of Tyrion’s trial also comes up, with Cersei trying to sway his judgement.

In Mereen, Daenerys is busy taking stock of her conquest now that Mereen has fallen and is told that Joffrey is now dead. She also learns that her army has taken Mereen’s fleet intact, and that she can now sail to Westeros. However, news has reached her that in her absence, the slave masters have once again seized power in Yunkai and Astapor. She decides that the time is not right to leave and that she must stay behind to rule as Queen, and see to it that Slaver’s Bay is and remains liberated.

GOT4_5_2In the Riverlands, Arya and Sandor continue on their way to the Eyrie, and Sandor learns that Arya intends to kill him along with all the other people on her list. He sees her doing a “water dance” as Syrio taught her, and mocks her efforts. Elsewhere, Brienne and Pod are making their way through the wilderness, and Brienne is frustrated by Pod’s apparent lack of competence as a squire. She chooses to ease up on him when she learns of how he saved Tyrion’s life by killing Ser Mandon Moore of the Kingsguard.

In the Vale itself, Sansa and Petyr arrive and are admitted to the Eyrie and are greeted by her aunt Lysa and Lord Robin. After sending Sansa and Robin away, Lysa demands that Petyr agree to marry her that same night. She speaks of how she was the one who killed Jon Arryn, and how she did at his behest. To quiet her, Petyr then agrees to her request, and discovers that she has the Septon waiting outside to perform the rights. They are married on the spot and begin their wedding night.

GOT4_5_4Later, she meets with Sansa. Over lemoncakes, she talks of her mother and Petyr’s obvious sense of duty towards her. In the course of this, she becomes very jealous and demands to know why he feels obligated to protect her, going so far as to accuse Sansa of being pregnant with his child. Sansa breaks down and cries, professing her innocence, and Lysa relents. She then says that they will all be safe, and that she intends to see Sansa marry Lord Robin.

In the north, Jon and his brothers come upon Craster’s Keep, and Locke spots Bran and the Reeds inside one of the shacks. He tells the others to avoid it, and when they attack, he sneaks in and tries to ferry Bran away. Bran takes possession of Hodor, and uses him to snap Locke’s neck and escape. Hodor frees the Reeds, and together, they watch as Jon and his brothers liberate the camp. Bran wants to call out to him, but Jojen warns him he will try to take him to Castle Black and not let him find the “Three-Eyed Crow”.

GOT4_5_5Jon meanwhile engages Karl Tanner in single combat. Karl nearly kills Jon after fighting dirty, but a Wildling woman manages to stab him in the back, giving Jon the time he needs to sink his sword into the back of Karl’s head. Jon is then reunited with Ghost, who freed himself and killed the last of the mutineers as they tried to escape into the forest. He tells the women they are free to come with him, which they are reluctant to do.

However, when faced with the prospect of staying at the Keep, they tell him to burn it to the ground as well as all the bodies of the mutineers. They watch Craster’s Keep catch fire and leave the place to burn…

Summary:
Yeah, again, this episode was little more than pacing and filler, even if it was relatively enjoyable to watch. Aside from Jon’s assault on Craster’s Keep and his execution of the muntineers, not much happened. Mainly, the characters simply talked about that which we already know, and nothing of consequence was really said. Cersei doesn’t trust Margaery and wants Tyrion to die, Arya hates Sandor, Pod isn’t that good a squire, and due to additional complications, Daenerys still can’t return to Westeros.

The only exception to this was Sansa’s arrival at the Eyrie, where we saw just how painfully irrational her aunt is and how jealous she can be. This is something that will come up in later episodes, with scary consequences (no spoilers)! We were also treated to the revelation that it was Petyr and Lysa who were behind Jon Arryn’s death. Up until now, it was attributed to the Lannister’s as part of their scheme to keep their incest a secret. However, we now see that it was part of Petyr’s ongoing scheme to play one house off against another.

As for Jon’s arrival at Craster’s Keep, we did get some action and some much needed justice. But in an entirely predictable twist, Bran and Jon do not meet up, mainly because the plot demands it. Never happened in the book, and of course Jon would try to take his brother back. So the only point of this added thread was to shoehorn some more action into the season, huh? I was also a bit annoyed that they changed Lord Robert’s name to Robin. Was it really necessary to make this change to avoid confusing audiences?

In any case, that plot thread is now closed, and Jon and the Nights Watch can get back to the matter of protecting Castle Black and the Wall from Mance and the Wildlings. And before the season is out, we will be treated to Tyrion’s trial, the consequences therefor, and the inevitable twists that will arise out of Arya, Brienne and Sansa’s misadventures in the Riverlands/Vale. These, I’m looking forward to, if not the additional pacing that is sure to accompany them!

COD: Modern Warfare 2

Welcome back to my ongoing series of video game reviews! Today, picking up from where I left off last time, is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Having just completed the entire series, I felt it was time to pay tribute to this series and tackle all that was right and wrong with it.

With COD: Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward essentially established a new standard of online gaming and first person shooters. Combining the best in AI’s, graphics, and gaming platforms, this game also had the honor of being the most high-profile “modern” first-person shooter of all time.

Prior to this, all the big name FPSs were either set in WWII or in the future, being either based in historical recreations or science fiction. Hence what was so interesting about this game, it incorporated up-to-date weaponry, tactics, and a storyline that boasted a great deal of socio-political speculation.

And much like the last one, it had its high and low points, which I shall get into now…

Plot Summary:
modern-warfare-russThe game picks up 5 years after the event of the first game (roughly 2016). According to General Shepherd, one the game’s pivotal characters, Russia has fallen to the ultra-nationalists and Imran Zakhaev is now considered a national hero, despite the fact that he very nearly unleashed WWIII on the populace. Meanwhile, a terrorist by the name of Makarov continues to fight Zakhaev’s fight, hoping to trigger another major conflict which will make his nation to force to be reckoned with once more.

The game opens with a Ranger Battalion in Afghanistan, where you are part of an attack (led by General Shepherd) into a contested town controlled by insurgents. After fighting your way across a destroyed bridge, you are required to fight your way to the center of town and clear a school which the insurgents are using as their forwards base. Upon completion, Shepherd alerts your character (PFC Allen) that you are being transferred to the CIA to do an undercover mission.

MW2_afghanistanNote: As I’m sure I’ve mentioned at least twice before, this entire mission was inspired by Generation Kill, specifically the footage of the 1st Recon’s assault on Nasariya and their passage through the town of Muwafaqiyah where Fedayeen were using a school as a fire base.

At the same time, Capt. John “Soap” McTavish has been promoted and is now the leader of the new international anti-terrorism squad known as Task Force 141. No mention is given as to the whereabouts of Captain Price, and given what happened in the last game, it appears as though he might be dead.

MW2_siberiaYour character for this portion of the campaign is Garry “Roach” Sanderon, another FNG with a delightfully absurd call sign. While the Marines are in Afghanistan, you and Captain Price are busy breaking into a Russian airbase in Siberia hoping to obtain the Attack Characterization System (ACS) module from a downed American satellite. After retrieving it, you and McTavish are forced to beat a hasty retreat using snowmobiles.

What follows next is the part of the game that warrants the big advisory at the beginning and which gamers have the option of skipping if they so choose. This inolves part of Allen’s “undercover assignment” where he witnesses first-hand Makarov’s monstrosity as he leads an assault on Moscow’s International Airport, where he and his thugs murder countless civilians with US-made guns.

When that’s over, Makarov shoots Allen (aka. you) and leaves him there for dead, knowing that the thousands of spent shell casings and the body of an American will make it look like the US perpetrated the attack. My advice: skip this mission! It’s gratuitous and frankly creepy. For the life of my I can’t imagine who thought putting this borderline psycho shit in would be entertaining or fun.

Immediately afterwards, Task Force 141 is dispatched to Rio de Janeiro to hunt down the weapons dealer who supplied Makarov. This takes you and your team through the “favella”, Rio’s most notoriously violent neighborhoods, where you are shot at by the local “militia”. Once you have your man, he indicates that he doesn’t know where Makarov is, but that there is one man he hates and fears more than anyone, and who just happens to be languishing in a gulag on the Kamchatka peninsula.

Meanwhile, back in the US, Russian forces get the drop on the Northeastern Seaboard. Having cracked the ACS, they are able to pass into US airspace without Norad noticing, and begin landing paratroopers and armored forces in Virginia, New York, and Washington DC. The second major thread in the game now opens, where you play as Pvt. James Ramirez, an Army Ranger in West Virginia who’s unit is deployed to a suburb to thwart a Russian attack and protect a HVI (high-value individual) who’s chopper was shot down.

After fighting off several waves, your unit is redeployed to Arcadia where you are tasked with retrieving another HVI who turns out to have been killed by Russian special forces. With assaults happening all along the Seaboard, the Russians are getting the upper hand on US forces by capturing key personnel, locations and intelligence.

MW2_gulagOver in Kamchatka, you and Task Force 141 assault the gulag and fight your way through defenders and Soviet-era electrical systems to find prisoner 141, the man who Makarov apparently wants dead. When you arrive at his cell, it turns out to be Captain Price, who is alive after all. He and McTavish have a brief reunion which is cut short as the Navy begins bombarding the gulag early to cover your escape.

Back in the US, you and your Ranger unit are redeployed to Washington DC which has become a smoking ruin. Your mission is to fight your way through the federal buildings on Capitol Hill and retake them from the attacking Russians. The fight takes you from the trenches, through the White House, and finally into the air. After your chopper is shot down, you find yourself cornered and about to be overrun…At the same time, Price makes contact with General Shepherd and proposes a bold plan. With Price alongside, you and Task Force 141 assault a Russian sub base not far from the gulag and seize control of a Russian missile sub. Though the plan is not altogether clear, you and McTavish manage to provide cover for Price long enough for him to get aboard the Russian sub, where he promptly unleashes a nuke bound for Washington DC! The nuke flies into orbit above the city, where it is detonated, taking out the ISS and unleashing a massive EMP.

Inside the city, the EMP knocks every piece of electronic equipment in the area, crippling the Russian assault. You and your unit, which had been cornered seconds before, now must run and find cover as countless jets and choppers come crashing down around you.

Once you resupply, you are tasked with advancing on Whiskey Hotel (aka. WH, for White House) and retake it in one last, desperate assault. Once this is done, you are notified by radio that the USAF is conducting “Hammer Down”, an emergency air assault that will level all capitol buildings that are still in enemy hands. You are then forced to run to the roof and pop green smoke to indicate that the White House is in friendly hands.

MW2_estate2With Washington DC saved, Shepherd is hailed a hero for his foresight in predicting that a war was coming. He is given a “blank check” and declares that he is going to use every cent reigning Makarov in. With this in mind, Task Force 141 splits into two forces, with Price and McTavish checking an aircraft boneyard in Afghanistan while you and the rest are deployed to a safehouse in Kazakhstan.

After taking down the house and downloading Makarov’s computer files, you are intercepted by an air rescue, where General Shepherd himself comes out and shoots you! He then shoots Ghost and his men dispatch the rest of your squad, leaving your burning remains in a ditch as he takes the files and flies off.

MW2_safehouseOver in Afghanistan, Price and McTavish get the words that Shepherd has killed the others and realize he’s been playing them all along. With Makarov’s information now in his hands, he’s effectively cleaning house and making sure he doesn’t get caught so the war can proceed.

At the same time, Shepherd’s forces are descending on the boneyard, looking to kill you and Makarov at the same time. After fighting your way the edge, you are rescued by an old friend – McTavish’s Russian contact Nikolai. Price is also able to contact Makarov and obtain the location of Price’s base in Afghanistan.

As McTavish, you and Price now assault Shepherd’s base and take down its defenders. After a lengthy chase, you manage to corner Shepherd and fight it out; unfortunately he gets a hold of your knife and stabs you in the stomach with it. Producing his gun, he explains his motivations.

MW2_shepherd_baseApparently, he was in command of the Marine assault force that was supposed to take down Al-Asad and lost 30,000 men when Zakhaev’s forces detonated the nuke. His bitterness inspired him to start a war in the hopes of shocking America out of its complacency, which he feels he’s now done. As he puts it, “tomorrow there will be no shortage of volunteers, no shortage of patriots.”

Before he can shoot you though, Price tackles Shepherd and the two begin to fight it out. Shepherd eventually gets the upper hand on Price, and you are forced to pull the knife out of your chest and toss into Shepherd’s face, killing him instantly. Nikolai then shows up with a chopper, in defiance of Price’s order that this be a “one way trip”, and he and Price begin to carry you (McTavish) aboard. The game ends with Nikolai warning you that everyone is now out to get you, but that he knows a safe place to put down and get medical help.

Summary:
I don’t imagine I need to say that this installment in the series has some kick-ass gameplay, but screw it, I still want to! It has kick-ass gameplay! In fact, when it comes to shear badassery, this game has got the first one beat. In addition to more and better guns for yourself, there are also some very cool added features. These include more claymores and the use of Stinger Missiles, but also Sentry guns, laser guided heavy weapons fire from armored vehicles, and even Predator drone strikes. This last aspect is especially cool, as you get to do overwatch on a target and then fire Hellfire missiles at targets.

In terms of the weapons you have access to, there are the usual M4’s, SAWs and M16’s that are standard US Army issue, but also SCARs, sniper rifles with thermal sights, FAMAS’, USAS-12 shotguns, and Steyr AUG’s. But in addition, the Russians also boast some new and impressive gear which you can use too. Of these, my favorites are the Tavor assault rifle and the Striker shotgun. There’s nothing like automatic shotgun fire to make you feel like a bad ass mutha!

And of course, all these features extend into the multiplayer realm which is even bigger, badder, and more detailed than the last. But even if you’re not feeling the mulitplayer community, there is the new Special Ops feature where you get the best of both world, the ability to conduct missions and earn points, but still as a single player. And I can attest that most of these missions, though some are hard as hell, are also fun as hell. And in many ways, they preview things which comes up in the third installments (such as Juggernauts).

As for the downsides… Well, in that respect, this game was much like the first. The storyline seems a bit unrealistic, and is kind of confusing in terms of who’s doing what and for whom. For instance, you’ve got Makarov who represents a continuation of Zakhaev’s agenda, but seems to be operating outside the realm of normal politics. Didn’t they say that the Ultra-nationalists took power? Why then is this man killing his own people? Isn’t that what you do when your kind is NOT in power? Or is he really that desperate for a nuclear war to take place?

And second, Shepherd’s motivations seem a bit flaccid. I get that he’s pissed about the loss of so many Marines int he first game, though they seem to have padded the body count because by my reckoning, most of the Marines got out. They had plenty of warning, but your own chopper turns back to rescue a downed pilot, hence why you die. Still, even if the body count is 30 or 30,000, risking total war with Russia seems like a bad way to stoke the fires of patriotism. As anybody is well aware, Cold War or not, any large-scale confrontation between the US and Russia would still involve their nuclear arsenals, and nobody would be walking away from that fight in one piece!

And another thing, so was he working with Makarov all along or just taking advantage of the man’s actions? This is never made clear. On the one hand, it was Shepherd who assigned Allen to infiltrate their group, so Shepherd DID give them the American body that they left behind to implicate the US. But at the same time, he is openly trying to track the guy down and have him killed, but quietly so the world won’t know the entire war is based on a lie. So what is it then? A collaboration between enemies, or two equally malevolent forces that just had happened to collide?

I for one would prefer the latter interpretation because it would be a fitting commentary on the “War on Terror”. In fact, throughout the game you have quotes from Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, the ones which are notorious for being stupid or questionable, which flash across the screen when you die. In that war, we saw a neo-conservative agenda colliding with a Salafist agenda, where two mortal enemies were effectively feeding off each other to the point that some openly suggested collusion. Of course there was no real evidence to suggest such a thing, but it was interesting to note just how much George W and Osama Bin Laden benefited from each others presence.

Ah, but the biggest bone of contention with this game comes in the form of its controversy. In fact, this is such a big subtopic that it deserves its own heading…

Controversy:
For obvious reasons, the shoot-up scene involving the Moscow International Airport caused quite a stir in the gaming and consumer community. Why, many asked, was it necessary to include a scene where the player is forced to take part in what can only be described as Columbine-like behavior? I for one could not believe my eyes the first time I played this game and didn’t realize I could skip the whole thing. Who, I wondered, would actually want to play this mission? Was it really such a good idea to include it all, even if the option was there to skip it? Why not say that it happened between missions?

And would it be at all farfetched to think that some psycho person, who just happened to play the mission, might get the idea to shoot up a crowded public space? The scenes are far too visceral and real, which I found disturbing since the game makers would have had to do their homework on something like this, taking into account how crowded areas are death traps once armed men begin firing automatic weapons, how panicked crowds tend to bunch up, and how they become especially vulnerable when they all run into a bottleneck and become easy targets.

See what I mean? It’s disturbing! It’s the kind of sick freak stuff that made me seriously question the sanity of the game makers and the nature of the game itself. Some will naturally argue that it’s just a game and therefore harmless, bad taste notwithstanding. But I’d say that given the numerous mass shootings that have taken place, not just recently, but all over the US in the past decade, that this was in horrible taste and just plain risky!

Others also questioned the mentality of showing Washington DC burning, with its many monuments shown scorched and even the White House itself burning and full of holes. Personally, I didn’t see the big deal here. I mean, if we’re going to penalize this game for displaying this kind of disaster porn that we’ll have to round up Rupert Emmerich and every other movie producer who’s ever destroyed landmarks in their films. There’s a reason people like this stuff, and it’s not because they secretly fantasize about seeing them destroyed.

If anything, it lends some urgency and a sense of emotional involvement to the story by showing them how things they know and love, or at the very least are familiar with, are being overrun and must be saved. Now that’s just me and I could be wrong, but I found this aspect of the game very cool! How many games allow you to fight in realistically-rendered environments of actual places? This was something that they intensified with the third one and I appreciated it there as well!

So that’s Modern Warfare 2, in a nutshell. Great game-play, exciting and intense, but containing some questionable content. It was a good thing that they stayed away from that for the third game, at least for the most part. Granted there was plenty of violence and they still had to issue the content warning for anyone playing it for the first time, but at least there weren’t any mass shootings where you’re the bad guy and are supposed to be taking part in it! Seriously, Infinity Ward, what were you thinking? Bad software developer!

Game of Thrones, Season 2 Finale!

Well it’s come at last. The big second season finale, the wrap up after the siege of King’s Landing, and the cliffhanger ending north of the Wall. And to be honest, I think this was the first episode I truly enjoyed. Not saying the other’s weren’t enjoyable as all hell. It’s just that with this episode, I found that I was finally putting aside the critical, comparative eye and just watching the show. Too bad too. But I guess I’ll have all summer to enjoy the re-runs. In the meantime, here’s what I thought about the season finale!

Valar Morghulis:
The mood is festive in King’s Landing, at least for most. Having secured the city from Stannis’ attack, Tywin Lannister and Ser Loras Tyrell are hailed as heroes. To cement the victory and the newfound alliance between House Lannister and House Tyrell, Joffrey agrees to marry Margaery Tyrell, rendering his marriage to Sansa null and void. Sansa is overjoyed, but must keep that herself. She is approached by Lord Pyter Baelish, who says he can smuggle her out of the capitol and bring her home.

Meanwhile, Tyrion wakes up in his new room to find that he’s been stripped of his duties as Hand of the King. His father has taken that role, and his Tyrion’s loyal followers have all been paid off and sent away. He is alone and virtually friendless, but luckily, he still has Shae and the allegiance of Varys, who appears to be hatching his own schemes with Ros, the lady of the night who works in Baelish’s brother. Robb announces his nuptials with Talisa, much to the chagrin of his mother. She warns him that Walder Frey is not a man to be crossed, but he is insistent that he proceed with his marriage as planned.

At Qarth, Daenerys enters the House of the Undying where she is confronted by the mages. Her dragons have been put in chains and so is she. However, her little scaled offspring begin belching fire at the mages and shattering their chains once they are reunited with her, and she quickly escapes with them in tow. Returning to Xaro’s house, Dany and her kin throw him into his chamber, which appears to be empty after all, and loot his house of anything of value. They proceed to the docks to buy what ships they can.

To the north, Theon is betrayed by his bannermen who kill him and set Winterfell ablaze. Brann, Rickson, Hodor and Osha leave the safety of the catacombs and begin heading north to the Wall where they believe they will be safe. Arya meanwhile meets up with Jaqen who is on his way back to Bravos. He invites her to come, but she says she must head north to her home. He gives her a coin and the words “Valar Morghulis” and tells her that they will buy her way to Bravos should she change her mind. He changes his face and bids her farewell.

And beyond the Wall, John and Qorin finally have at it and John manages to kill him. This moves earns him the Wildlings trust, and it appears that was what Qorin had in mind all along. He is taken to the Wildlings encampment in a frozen valley where he sees tents as far as the eye can see. And lastly, the Night’s Watch at the First of the First Men are best by White Walkers. Emerging from the snow and ice, they come in droves and shriek out a terrible, bone chilling war cry!

Final Thoughts on the Finale:
Well, once again I have to say that the did a very good job of adapting the novel to the screen. The ending was bone chilling and a real cliff-hanger,and they managed to do a good job of wrapping up all the seasons threads. When season 3 comes around, they will be in perfect firing position to pick the story up and take it even further towards resolution. Of course, changes were made again, but I have to say that with one exception, I was unanimously in favor of them this time around.

But before I get into that, I need to mention one change from the previous episodes that I totally forgot to mention. In episode 8, Arya and her pals make their escape thanks to Jaqen’s help. However, how they went about doing this was quite different than from in the book. There, Arya told Jaqen that she would un-utter his name if he freed the dungeons of all the Stark captives so they could take Harrenhal from the Lannisters. Since this would be done when Lord Tywin and the bulk of his army was away, there would not be enough men to defend against all the freed prisoners.

The plan worked, and Lord Bolton took command of the castle in the name of the Starks. However, that didn’t change Arya’s fortunes much, as she no one believed she was the Stark girl and she remained cupbearer, only this time to Lord Bolton. Jaqen had left at this point, giving her the coin and instructions on how to get to Bravos, so she had to free herself. She did this by killing a guard in the night and escaping with Gendry and Hot Pie, sans any help.

Of course, I could see why they simplified all this by having Jaqen simply kill the guards and letting her go free. It was a convoluted plot thread that took way longer in the book to resolve itself. And the same is true in this episode where we see both Theon’s betrayal and Sansa’s planned escape from King’s Landing being truncated. In the book, Theon was betrayed by one of his own, yes, but it was far more complicated. Essentially, Lord Bolton’s bastard was one of the men Theon freed from Winterfell’s dungeons, unbeknownst to him.

When he found that no help was coming from his father, he sent several men out to look for helpers. The bastard Bolton rode home, where he raised an army of his father’s men and returned just as Robb’s bannermen were outside the city. His forces set upon them and defeated them, and then were welcomed into Winterfell by Theon as liberators. However, the bastard of Bolton then killed Theon and ordered Winterfell razed, out of spite for how they put him in prison.

Complicated huh? Far better to just have Theon betrayed by his own men who then chose to raze the city and make a run for it, since it was obvious to them that no help was coming. And of course, Sansa’s planned escape from King’s Landing was more – you guessed it – complicated in the book. Here, it was Ser Dontos, the disgraced drunkard who’s life she saves at Joffrey’s tournament, offers to help free her during Joffrey’s wedding to Margaery Tyrell. In time (spoiler alert) she learns that he is being helped by Lord Pyter Baelish who is once again motivated to help her because of the love he has for her mother.

But once again, to simplify this and cut down on the necessary screen time, they leave out all of her secret meetings with Ser Dontas and speed ahead to Baelish simply telling her, “I can get you out”. Personally, I would have liked a secret deal being struck early on much better. The conspiratorial nature of it, as she was forced to endure Joffrey’s beatings and the queen’s abusive nature, was much more intriguing. Finding out that Pyter was involved was a good revelation too, which was effective since it was saved for the last minute.

Last, but not least, there was the changed nature of John’s “defection” and his fight with Qorin. Already they changed things, as I said in my previous posts, John and Qorin were taken prisoner together after he set Ygritte go. There was no prolonged scene between John and Ygritte in the wilderness with her trying to temp him with her Wildling wiles (ha!). But alas, they seemed to tie that up when it was revealed that both he and Qorin were taken and Qorin wanted him to make up for his failure.

And it was clear that Qorin was executing that plan when he attacked John Snow, baited him to anger, and then let him win their fight. But he did all that without explaining what he wanted John to do. This is something that they will be forced to answer for in season 3. Either John will decide to play the role of defector merely to stay alive, or he will be genuinely torn between his genuine affections for Ygritte and his duty to the Night’s Watch.

Oh yeah, and that added plot thread involving Ros and now Varys. Not sure what they’ve got planned there, all I can tell you is it never happened in the book. In fact, as I’ve pointed out numerous times now, nothing involving Ros happened in book II. Much like Dany’s attendant, Doreah, they seem to be inflating her role and keeping her alive a lot longer than in the book. But I assume there is a reason for it. After all, Doreah’s character very quickly dies in book II, and the way they kept her around was ultimately better in the series. I can only assume her plot with Varys will connect back to actual material from the book and wrap up nicely in the end.

But that’s another season and another series of posts! Right now, all I want to think about was that ending. White Walker everywhere, blue-eyed zombies taking to the frozen field, ready to lay down a hurting. And of course, that war cry at the end and the way the camera pans out to show just how many of them there are… Spine-tingly-dingly!

Thoughts on the Season:
Overall, I’m pretty pleased with what they did with this book and can see the logic in all the changes they made. I also liked how they brought back Jason Momoa to reprise his role as Khal Drogo, even if it was short lived. Seeing him portray the burley, tough, and yet gentle leader of the Dothraki was one of the highlights of season one. Even though I couldn’t stand the re-imagined Conan movie, or perhaps because of that, it was good to see him back in this role again.

And let’s not forget, the seige of King’s Landing, the climax of book II, was a real highlight for this season. Beautifully rendered, well-executed and choreographed, and ultimately very faithful to the book. In all adaptations, the writers and designers have their work cut out for them, but these guys have managed to pull it all off with limited resources. But then again, dedication and a great cast can do that! I can honestly say that despite all the wonderful costumes, settings and storyline, the biggest selling point of this show is the acting. George RR Martin is quite the writer, but the cast has always managed to deliver.

Well, that’s it for season two. Now begins the winter of our viewing discontent, otherwise known as summer reruns! See you next season with G-O-T… Season 3 (rhymes!), otherwise known as A Storm of Swords. It’s sure to be a blockbuster!

The Matrix: It’s Loaded!

When I wrote about the Matrix last, I believe I said something about how it basically rocked. And the critics all seemed to agree on this one: the action, the plot, the tone, and the rich metaphorical nature of the film all combined to create something that was entertaining, stimulating and even groundbreaking. The only problem with having such a big hit is, how good does the second one need to be in order to live up to the original? Even harder is creating a sequel that can top it! Greater people than the Wachoswkis have tried, few have succeeded.

In their heyday, Lucas, Scorsese, Cameron, Miller and a few others managed to top their first installments. In fact, Google a list of the best sequels ever made and I guarantee that The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2, and Mad Max 2 will be in the top ten. Hell, top five! Go on, I’ll wait… Was I right? Yes, I’m sure there were other worthy entries in that list, but these ones stand out for one reason. Between movie one and two, they didn’t switch directors! That’s right, sometimes, when it was clear that a franchise was in the making, the studios brought in a pitch-hitter to give the movie a higher profile. But in cases where the original director was still in charge, it was even more impressive when the sequel was better.

Why should this be so, you ask? Well, two reasons that I can think of: One, inspiration is a fickle thing. Rarely does a creative mind know when their idea is truly spent. And unless they had the foresight to plot out where it was going ahead of time, rarely is a follow-up even foreseeable. Remember Highlander? There was a movie that had no business becoming a franchise! It ended in movie one, so movies two, three, four, etc, were mainly contrived explanations as to how there could possibly be any sequels. My apologies to any fans, but in this case, there really SHOULD have been only one…

And reason number two: Duty! If the first installment is a smash hit, the creator can’t help but feel obligated or pressured to create more of the same. In the process, they can overshoot and end up making something that feels totally forced. Or, to use another baseball metaphor, if you hit it out of the park on the first pitch, you’re likely to get nervous and end up hitting air on the second. And lets not forget, when it comes to the creative process, high expectations and pressure are like a hot lead enema. Little wonder then why movies like the aforementioned ones are so popular! In spite of the pressure and expectations, these creative minds managed to produce something golden not once but twice!

But enough about those sequels! Let’s get to this sequel! As I might have also alluded to in the last post, the Matrix: Reloaded did NOT quite live up to the first for many reasons, most of which had to do with why sequels fail in the first place.

The Matrix: Reloaded:
After the first movie’s success, the Wachowski brothers spent some time contemplating what they were going to do as a follow-up. Initially, rumor had it that they were going to make two more movies, one a prequel and the other a sequel. However, the brothers eventually decided on two sequels which would be filmed together and released within a few months of each other. I can’t say if this was done out of shrewdness or kindness, because while this did have some obvious commercial benefits for them, it was also a welcome relief to fans who wouldn’t have to wait a couple of years to see how it would all end.

However, this format also had some drawbacks. For one, it made the two movies seem more like a single movie told in two parts rather than two separate ones. It also meant that the critical flops were a lot more apparent, which led to some sour reviews towards the end. The Wachowksi’s had little to worry about though, since they still had the fans. But they too were saying bad things about the second and third movie that they weren’t saying about the first. In general, I tended to agree with these assessments, and here are some of the more glaring ones that I picked up on:

1. Convoluted Plot/that “Matrix within a Matrix” crap:
Reloaded suffered from a particularly obvious fact in that it was trying to do too much. This is surprising considering that the point of any second act is relatively simple: find a way to darken things. In the fist movie, Neo realized that he was the One and has superhuman powers which made him damn near invincible as far as the machines were concerned. But Act II had to end with things hanging by a thread and the heroes close to losing all hope. So the question remained, how were the machines supposed to get the upper hand on humanity now that their savior had arrived? How were we to get to that hopeless feeling that would keep us all guessing between parts II and III?

The answer: Well, turns out that the Matrix is older than anyone knows. And it has a way of dealing with the One too that ultimately serves its purpose. Basically, the machines periodically destroy Zion and time their system to crash at roughly the same time. As soon as the One emerges, they ensure that he/she finds their way to the Source where they are then given a choice: reboot the system and rebuild Zion once its been leveled, thus ensuring the human race remains alive and the Matrix keeps running; or let all humanity die. Honestly, not a bad idea. Kind of ties things up nicely too if you think about it (but not too much). Ah, but there was one problem when it came to the delivery of this plot line: nobody seemed to get it! After the movie opened at the box offices, the most common reaction reported by movie-goers, aside from being impressed with the special effects, was confusion! And who could blame them? Between the Oracle’s revelation that she is a program and that there are all kinds of exiled sentient programs running around in the Matrix, Smith’s long-winded diatribe about freedom and purpose, and the patronizing lecture from the Architect about the true nature of the Matrix with all the pointlessly big words (ergo, vis a vis, concordantly), everyone seemed to be just a little lost. What the hell did all that mean?

I wasn’t sure myself, and had to watch it a few times just to get it all down. Sure, it made sense in a convoluted way, but if you have to go over it again and again just to get it, the point is already lost. In fact, people were so confused that an entire culture of speculation seemed to spring up in the months between the release of the first and second movies. And rather than being concerned with what all the speeches meant, the focal point seemed to be on the last few minutes of the film where Neo killed those squiddies. Because of that, just about everyone seemed to think that there was a “Matrix within a Matrix”! In short, the characters were STILL in the Matrix when Neo killed them, and that meant… well, that depended on who you asked. Some even went so far (as one friend of mine did) as to say that Neo HIMSELF was a program. It made no sense to me and I told them so (sometimes arguments ensued!). But I could see why this was happening. When people don’t get a movie, they tend to make up their own plot. And just about everybody was doing that here!

2. Too much going on:
Another thing wrong with Reloaded was the fact that everything felt way too rushed. One minute, we’re getting a long speech or expository scene, and less than a second later, a big fight or a car chase. And all of it seemed to rush on endlessly towards a climax where, I hoped, everything would come together and things would make sense. I realized shortly after seeing it for the second or third time that it was for this very reason that the plot felt so convoluted. Had they taken their time to develop things and flesh things out some more, and not spent so much time cramming everything they could in, the movie might have made more sense and not been so overwhelming. Whereas in the first movie, time was taken to develop things and let questions and suspense build, this movie jumped right in and seemed to keep piling things on the longer it went. Here are some examples:

Mythological characters: In movie one, we were treated to a rich mythology where characters were obviously inspired by classical, biblical or historical figures and sources. This time around, the Wachowski brothers tried to do the same but both over and under-did it. On the one hand, we were saturated with characters who had obvious parallels to mythological figures:

Seraph- the guardian angel of the Oracle, based on biblical seraphs that protected heaven
The Twins – Castor/Pollux, the twin brothers of Greco-Roman mythology
The Merovingian – aka. the Frenchman, a power-hungry, exiled program named after the Merovingian dynasty of early France, who claimed descent from the union between Gods and humans (much like Greeks royals)
Persephone – his wife, based on the Greek goddess of renewal who was brought unhappily by Hades to the underworld to be his wife
The Keymaker – a sentient program imprisoned by the Merovingian who grants access to the back doors of the Matrix, the doors representing the doors of perception and the keys the answers
The Architect – the judicious and perfectionist mathematical program who designed the Matrix and is based on Yahweh, God in the Old Testament, in how he controls and binds all to his creation, even the One

On the other hand, not one of them was well-developed. Take any of the above mentioned characters and try to find a few words to describe them, but you can’t say who they were inspired by or what their basic function was. What can you say about Persephone other than she is inspired by the original and was the Merovingian’s wife, and angry? What can you say about the Merovingian other than he’s arrogant (and French)? How about the Architect, keeping in mind you can’t say he’s the creator of the Matrix and obviously a dick? Hard, isn’t it? The movie simply moved along too quickly to give a single one their due.

That stuff you notice is really the Matrix doing stuff: In this movie, we get a slew of explanations of how supernatural things and conspiracy theories are in fact aspects of the Matrix. A neat suggestion, and somehow related to the fact that there are sentient programs running around who are defying the Source. But do they take the opportunity to follow this thread and develop it, show us some examples and how it might be really, really significant? Not really… Remember that moment in the first movie where Neo’s says he’s having a moment of deja vu? Remember how everyone reacted and how it led to tension and an immediate action sequence? Not only was it a cool sci-fi concept, it was intrinsic to the plot. Here, not so much! Sure, we get to see some examples – the Vampires that work for the Merovingian or the Twins (who are decidedly ghost-like). But no time is spent explaining their purpose, why they chose to defy to the Matrix, or why they were behaving in such a way that the Matrix had to assimilate it. This is important shit, dammit! It shows just how detailed and rich the world of the Matrix is; but it goes by so fast, we barely notice!

Looooong action scenes: Last, but certainly not least, the action scenes were way too drawn out! I mean hey, I love a fight scene or a car chase as much as the next guy, but the fight with the Smiths and the freeway chase? Holy crap, did they go on! In both cases, it just felt like the Wachowski’s were trying to see how far they could take things. How many Smiths can we cram into one shot? How many cool moves can Neo do before he’s forced to fly away? How many cars can we crash and semi’s can we total? How many explosions? And after all that, Neo somehow manages to save EVERYBODY!

3. That dance scene: Really, what purpose did that scene serve? That long drawn out dance scene with the techno music interlaced with scenes of Neo and Trinity doing it in slow motion. Tell me what purpose it served! Was it meant to showcase how the people of Zion were trying to celebrate their freedom? Fine! Show them dancing in the background. Don’t do a ten-minute montage of slow motion dancing and screwing. It’s just plain weird!

4. CGI aint setting!: Here’s something George Lucas should have realized in the course of making his prequels. CGI does not a movie make! It must be somehow freeing to know that budgets are no longer an issue, but really, special effects are not a substitute for real settings or real people! This movie, just like all the Star Wars crap fests, was saturated with CGI, and it didn’t make it one bit more impressive! The massive fight scene between Neo and the Smiths, the Highway chase scene, and a plethora of other shots that were packed full of digital special effects… Well, they just showed! One fan-critic I remember hearing from pretty much summed it up: “No wonder all the characters wear glasses and trench coats and suits. Its so you don’t notice that they don’t look like the actors!”

And he was right! Especially during that fight scene, the Smiths and Neo just looked so… rendered! I mean really, the audience KNOWS when its CGI, so its not like you’re able to substitute it for a real shot and expect them not to know the difference. And in truth, it just seems lazy to rely on green screens and site lines rather than real actors, real sets and real costumes; which is why it should be used sparingly, not glaringly! If every face, every motion, every effect, and every background – hell, just everything in the shot – is rendered in CGI, it’s going to look fake! The result is that everyone’s going to be very aware of the fact that they are watching a movie. Suspension of disbelief will fly out the window!

5. Dialogue: Granted this movie had a few good lines, but nothing like the first. In fact, the dialogue in this one seemed very hackney and awkward compared to movie one, even when coming from Laurence Fishburn and Hugo Weaving! Smith’s opening speech to Neo, for example. Holy shit did that drag on! Not to mention that it was so full of cliches and philosophical claptrap! Yeah, I know it was obvious that Smith wanted to kill Neo by the way the background music was all menacing and building up to a crescendo, but you sure couldn’t tell from what he was saying: “I’m free, thanks to you. But see, I’m not really free. Blah, blah, blah, purpose. Blah, blah, blah, existence. Prepare to die!” And Morpheus, the one-time Pez dispenser of cool lines, became a big, over-enunciating machine in this one. Not once did he use a contraction! Right before the highway chase happens, he says “Yes… that is TRUUUE. Then let us PRAAAY, that I was WROOONG.” Laurence, I’m usually a fan, but that last line was hard to hear! Or how about “There are some things in this universe that do not change, Naobi. Some things DO change.” Ick! He aced his lines in movie one, sure, but this time around, both he and Weaving seemed daunted by bad script writing.

6. Neo saves everybody: A minor point, but it annoyed me, and I’m writing this, so there! Okay, so back to the freeway chase! Neo showed up at the last second to save Morpheus and the Keymaker, right? And remember how he did the exact same thing at the end and saved Trinity, even though he foresaw her death and we are told repeatedly that there is a very good chance she will die? So why does he get to save her in the end? One unlikely rescue was enough, two is pushing it. And in the end, this movie would have felt a lot more serious and dire if Neo lost the love of his life in the end. Hell, it would have been the perfect Act II downturn! He decides to forsake all other humans in order to save her, but then can’t! Can you feel the tragedy? I think movie-goers would have left thinking this movie made a lot more sense if that had happened! And before anyone tells me that’d be too sad, let me remind them that she dies anyway in Act III. This way, Neo goes into the final installment bitter, sad and full or rage; ready to kill and even die for the sake of one final act of vengeance/sacrifice in order to save Zion!

7. Holes: Even though I chose to challenge the whole “Matrix within a Matrix” idea on the basis that it made less sense than the actual movie, it did still have holes that could not be ignored. For instance, if the Oracle is on the side of humanity, why has she been helping them to fulfill the Architect’s plans for so long? By sending Neo, and all the other Ones before him, to the Source, she’s been ensuring that they end up doing exactly what the Architect wanted. Sure, they kept humanity alive this way, but they also kept the cycle of human slavery keeps going. Zion keeps getting destroyed, the system keeps getting rebooted, world keeps on spinning and humanity remains oppressed. Yes, Neo broke that cycle in the end and did it with her help. But in essence, she was screwing all those that came before him by feeding them the same bit of prophecy, the one that misled them into thinking that going to the Source would win the war. By the end of movie two, we were told that the Oracle is basically part of the system, thus making her the enemy. And you know what? I believed it! It didn’t seem plausible that she would be doing all that and somehow be on the side of humanity after all.

Which brings me to plot hole number two. The whole cyclical plot of the Matrix, where every One does the Architects bidding, was basically broken by one act of defiance. When Neo was given the choice to comply or let humanity die, he basically decided to try and save Trinity, and in the process condemned Zion and everyone still hooked into to the system. Did the Oracle foresee this? Did she foresee that at one point, a One would come along who could break the whole cycle by telling the Architect to go to hell, spawn a rogue Smith who would threaten to take over the Matrix, cut a deal with the Source to spare Zion, fail to stop him, let Smith assimilate him, then get himself killed by the Source, thus killing off Smith and injecting the reboot code into the Matrix at the same time, therefore rebooting the whole system in the process? Wow, just saying it makes my eyes cross! I can’t imagine how she must have felt! Point is, its hokey and kinda damn weird! I know, I’m going into movie three, but like I said, these two movies are kinda one and the same.

Next, there’s the question of timing. Essentially, we are told by the Architect that Neo was at the Source because Zion was “about to be destroyed”. Concordantly (ha!), the Matrix was about to go down unless he rebooted it with the code he got from passing into the Source. But here’s the thing! During much of the movie, there was still a good chance that the forces of Zion could have stopped or at least slowed the machines down before they reached Zion. The only reason why they made it to the front door without incident was because a Smith took over Bane (a human resistance fighter), set off one of the ship’s EMPs and disabled Zion’s entire fleet ahead of time. If the Zionites had been keeping the machines back when the Matrix went down (because Neo chose not to reboot it) wouldn’t that mean the machines themselves would die off? The Matrix is their main power source, so keeping 250,000 squiddies alive would become very difficult. At the very least, they’d be right screwed in the long run! Humanity’s eventual victory would be guaranteed!

Makes you think doesn’t it? No? Maybe its just me!

In short, The Matrix: Reloaded suffered because the Wachowskis were clearly trying to do too much with this one film. On the one hand, they were trying to top the action scenes from the first. On the other, they were trying to live up or even outdo the mythology of the first. All that seems perfectly natural considering the hype they knew they were generating. After the success of the Matrix, expectations were high and any effort on their part to follow it up would be surrounded by buzz, expectations and high hopes. But if you try to compensate for all that by cramming more, more, more in, you get what you pay for in the end.

Ultimately, I think this movie and the final installment were good examples of what not to do with a franchise. In essence, stay true to the concept and don’t try to outdo it. And, wherever possible, plan for an eventual sequel ahead of time. Hell, that’s what Lucas did and look what came out of that! Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi! On the other hand, he never bothered to storyboard the prequels til well into the 90’s, and look what happened there… On second thought, don’t! No sense opening up THAT can of worms again!

The Matrix: Reloaded
Entertainment Value: 8/10 (still entertaining)
Plot: 6/10 (convoluted!)
Direction: 8/10
Total: 7.5/10

Note: examples of Matrix mythology can be found at www.matrixmythology.com)