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The Week in Old Entertainment: James Gandolfini Tribute

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It’s a sad day for all of us who treasure the Sopranos.

At only 51 years of age, James Gandolfini has passed away, leaving behind a titan’s footprint in the sand. It’s odd to say, but even at the $1 million dollar per episode contract, James Gandolfini was undervalued. Could this independent and premium cable entertainment company, HBO, have the same stranglehold on top programming that it does today without the Sopranos? Would there be Game of Thrones on HBO? True Blood? Boardwalk Empire? Would Netflix have dipped its toes into premium content a la House of Cards without Sopranos? The entire HBO empire was built on his massive shoulders.

Take a look at the programming on HBO in the early to mid 90’s. You can see that the quality of programs on there was steadily rising with Oz starting in 1997 and Sex in the City in 1998, but nothing before those as truly groundbreaking or momentous. Did anyone really watch much of Arli$$ ? After the Sopranos, you start seeing major mini-series like Band of Brothers and Angels in America, and also true classic series like The Wire, Deadwood, Extras, and even things like Da Ali G Show. There’s a original series boom after the success of the Sopranos and I say it’s all because of James Gandolfini.

The extraordinary thing of it all is that James Gandolfini wasn’t even a likely television star. He was large, soft around the middle, and balding, but he had character. Sure, you could have done the show with someone more traditionally handsome for a leading man, but that product would not have been the Sopranos.

I was born in New Jersey. I tell people I am from there even though I spent the more formative years of my childhood in Indiana because there was no sense of identity to Indiana. It was milquetoast bland, plain denim with a white tee, points of light dotting a very flat and sparse country. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the US. It’s old. Much of the state is tied into NYC, the greatest city in the world. It has bustle. It’s okay to say this: New Jersey is where people who can’t afford to live in New York go to live and raise families. And it has an identity tied into all of that: a crowded place living in New York’s shadow. James Gandolfini was a Jersey guy. He had “the vowel” as they say, denoting his Italian heritage. He was regularly seen at Rutgers and NY Giant football games. He was big with a big smile – “brutish yet charming” is the description in his IMDB profile.

His breakout in the Sopranos came from nowhere, yet set an unprecedented standard at the same time. Look at the amazing range he was able to display: mafia boss, charming serial-cheater, man in panic, cheering dad, violent thug, Machiavellian politico, doting husband (at times), someone who was ruthless, savvy, and full of bullshit all at the same time. Tony Soprano reached all audiences because he was hard not to like. That charm brought out a strange Mafioso romanticism, but he was also the same guy who enjoyed an overstuffed bowl of ice cream while sitting on the couch watching his sports. Blue & white collared at the same time, plus a criminal!

The emotion of the television show seemed to be very real. Gandolfini once told Vanity Fair  after the show had ended, “I’m still in love with Edie [Falco]. Of course, I love my wife, but I’m in love with Edie. I don’t know if I’m in love with Carmela or Edie or both. I’m in love with her.” Steve Schirippa shared that after Gandolfini’s contract holdout was resolved after season 4, James came back to the show and gave each regular cast member $33,000 and a thanks for sticking by him. He lived and breathed that character.

I probably go back and watch the series once every two years. It’s so good. It is a part of the television canon. Without the Sopranos, entertainment would be missing a very important chapter. And without Jim Gandolfini, there would be no Sopranos.

Game of Thrones, Season 3 – Really??!?

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Another season of Game of Thrones has passed, another year of tragedy and dashed hope.

The show has absorbed George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and is presenting it to us as truly and entertainingly as it can. Sure, while HBO is the one place where this show can exist because of certain subject matters (medieval debauchery, royal incest, epic armies, and magical creatures), Game of Thrones is unquestionably successful. Each episode costs something in the range of 5 million to produce – a cost at which HBO laughs at all the way to the bank – and the production of which is relatively quick. Season 4 is already slated for a release in 2014.

So how was season 3?

I’m having some difficulty articulating my feelings about the show. I enjoy it immensely, I have a Sunday ritual of seeing it on a big screen at a friend’s place of business (more on this later), and the show led me to the books, which I devoured ravenously. On the other hand, I have some serious questions about the adaptation of the story that is going on here, especially in the wake of the season 3 finale.

BY THE BY – SPOILERS FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN ALL OF SEASON 3 FROM HERE ON IN

I walked away from the season 3 finale feeling yucky and despondent. I was starting to think that the show had taken a nasty turn towards The Walking Dead (sucking, in other words), but  I couldn’t articulate the thing I wanted changed. In each season that came before, the really shocking or dynamic moments happened in episode 9 and then the whole story gets a bit of a wrap on episode 10. Well, you can’t get much more shocking or dynamic than the Red Wedding, so the next episode should have some calming effects on its audience, right? Bleh. I needed to figure out my frustrations and turned to many sources. I messaged my friend Craven in the UK, waiting for him to see the episode and get his feedback. Here’s how that conversation went…

Craven: All done, seen it, sound off!

Me:  Didn’t like the end. It really feels like half a season. And they gave nothing, NOTHING, to the poor fools who put everything in on the Stark side and lost it last week. Too much of the Greyjoys and I don’t care for them a lick. I think I might know too much to appreciate the storycraft that this season provided, but I’m of the opinion that next season better be rip-roaring and filled to the gills with deaths and fights and Oberyn Martells. I really needed a cliff-hanger or a tease at the end of this and was really disappointed with dim-witted happy fest in Yunkai.

Craven: I was waiting on something big and juicy. I half expected a teaser of Coldhands if nothing else. But, I’m not surprised that the Bran element was a damp squib. He has been the worst part of the season. Jon/Ygritte was totally different, I hate the way they are playing Shae this season, and what the hell is Jamie doing back before Joffrey’s wedding?

Me: 

Yes, yes, and yes, and I have no idea. Dani had a good point while trying to talk me down – no one likes the first half of things. This season was a necessary evil if we’re to get all the goodies of the next part. 

But most of it just feels like it was scenery chewing – Dany, Melisandre, Theon, most of the Rob Stark bits – lots of the show dragged this season

 
Craven: She is right. Amie liked the end, but she is a massive Dany fan. Amie hasn’t read any of the books and this season has started to lose her interest a little bit. She doesn’t get why Bran is so desperate to get beyond the wall for a start, lots of things have been glossed over. She has said that without me as a running encyclopedia she wouldn’t have got most of it. Made me realise how little people just relying on the show are given. I was cussing the screen at Roose Bolton, then in discussing with Amie it occurred to me that there has been no real explanation about who he is really. She thought he was an adviser to Robb. The show hasn’t fleshed out who Roose is at all. That’s a shame
 
Me: Yes. And I saw that starting to not unfold in season 2 and he kind of got some screen time in this season, but not like enough to really get the betrayal and cunning evil that is the Roose. My biggest fear is what happened to my friend who doesn’t read and relies on just the show. He was CRUSHED after the Red Wedding – a broken man. And he turned to dark forces: wikipedia. He ruined the rest of the series for himself.

 
 
Craven: Hopefully next time we will have a tighter focus. And oh god, I hope the Red Viper is done justice. Bringing Dorne into it is going to rock the people just watching the show. For me the best parts of the season have been any scene involving Charles Dance.
 
Me: Or the Queen of Thornes. Old Emma Peel is a godsend!
Craven: Yeah, she has been incredible. It always comes back to the same core actors in my book: Varys, Littlefinger, Tyrion, Cersei, and Tywin. They rarely drop the ball and if they do it’s never acting ability that lets them down.

I forget… when does Euron Crow’s Eye show up?

 

 

Me: Next book. But the Greyjoys are messed up anyway. They can show off the Iron Islands for a whole season getting that malarky figured – that’s such a farce.
 
Craven: It was quite stirring stuff on screen but yeah, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Theon was lambasted for taking Winterfell with 13 odd men. Yet, “Yara” goes off to take the Dreadfort with 50. Good luck with that. Casting Euron and Victarion will need to be handled really well.
 
Me: The casting is amazing – I actually have no qualms about anyone and trust them completely (Daario being the exception that proves the rule). Everyone added in season 3 was picture perfect: the Blackfish, Thoros, Beric, Qyborn, the frog twins, Mance, and my favorite – Tormund Giantsbane.
 
Craven: I consider you my contemporary on all things Game of Thrones, we should unite on a season wrap up or something.

Me: We have an accord then.

 

We had some of the same issues – and I deleted the book spoilers of that conversation – but I think it all boiled down to this: every season before had a cliff-hanger, some tease to cling on to for more, but this season’s ending was dull. The show put their all eggs in the Red Wedding basket and didn’t do enough to bring its viewers out of that hole. Too many people believe that the bad guys are going to win – which leads to my friend who spoiled the rest of the story for himself. There’s a significant cause and effect there that disturbs me about the story-telling in the series. My friend, who is a significant dork and not new to harsh fantasy realities, could not take the shock of Robb and Catelyn’s deaths and almost vowed from seeing the show ever again. (There’s a ton of attention to this phenomenon on Twitter – go look up @RedWeddingTears)

 

Yes, the Red Wedding is a shock that many book readers were waiting for, but the next episode should do something to rescue those viewers from their pitiful tears! I don’t feel like this was addressed at all, there was some commentary from Bran about the gods punishing those that betray the oath of safety, but it’s pretty weak borscht in the face of such slaughter. I could have done without the scenery chewing of Cersei talking to Tyrion about Joffrey as a child, Varys talking to Shae about leaving the city, or Davos talking to Gendry over their origins. What is all of that character development doing in the last episode? Give me more resolution! Show me more of the wedding plans! Have Cersei say ANYTHING to Jaime now that he’s back (unexpected timing on that) or have Brienne say something! Can we at least get some resolution on who’s higher in the Khaleesi’s eye, Ser Jorah Mormont or N.K.O.T.B. Daario Nahaaris?  There’s a lot of spoilers I want to say, too, but I’m choosing to leave them out. Just to say, there’s about 5 different things that the show could have used as the ending of this season as opposed to some happiness in Yunkai.
 
 
I mean, CMON! Even Theon knows how hokey that ending was.
 
 
 
 
There’s a long road to go and the best parts of A Storm of Swords will be in Season 4, which is , I suppose, why I’m upset. The new character castings will be announced probably in the mid-summer and shooting soon thereafter. As a very wise woman just told me, when you’re breaking something in half like this, the first half is just a necessary evil. It’s the last half that everyone wants to see.

Oh Mad Men, What are you Doing?

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Mad Men’s sixth season two-hour premiere was Sunday night.

I fell asleep twice. It was boring, stilted, and over-indulging itself, ladies and gentlemen. My better half and I turned to each other several times during the premiere and said out loud, “What is going on with that? This is bad.”

Season Five came out with a bang! Zou Bisou Bisou!

Season Six? Not so much.

Don Draper seems medicated with the way he interacts with his world. They’ve changed the self-introspective star into an indifferent sot who half the time doesn’t answer direct questions. I counted three distinct moments in which Don was asked a question and instead of replying, he just ignored it completely. That’s not great writing, as the show wants us to think, that’s sloppy! It’s drek! I know the show’s creator wants me to think, “Ooo, Don Draper is ignoring the concerns of lesser people around him and he’s still struggling with the issues of his past.” NO! If he’s struggling with his issues, make him interesting and fire witty comebacks or snarky remarks at people. His silence isn’t interesting. It makes you look like you forgot how to write your main character.

Betty Draper is back on the creepy-wagon. I’m not exactly sure why we’re watching her. Betty’s fallen in love with another lost adolescent now and I wish that revealed something about her character or Don or her current relationship, or was even mildly interesting, but it’s not. Watching Betty talk to drifters and squatters while searching for some lost girl was predictable and dull.

Roger Sterling is keeping things sharp and snappy, at least. I like his therapy sessions, they remind me of Tony Soprano sharpening his mental teeth. But Roger’s reactions to events like his mother’s funeral are growing unbelievable. Did anyone buy his fake over-the-top rage at seeing his ex-wife’s husband? We all know he just wants to sleep with Mona again, that’s been true at every point in the show about every woman Roger’s ever met. His mother’s funeral isn’t a realistic time to dwell on that again, is it?. Plus, there was the crying scene. Everyone watching called out how he’d break down as soon as he was alone in his office with his former shoe shiner’s kit. Too predictable again, guys.

Is it me, or was the dialogue repetitive? Megan tells Don to get some sleep, she has to go out and be an actress, Don – get some sleep, she loves her job, Don – get some sleep, tell Roger I’m sorry I couldn’t be at the funeral, and Don, get some goddamn sleep.

In addition to the dialogue woes, did everyone on the cast visit the January Jones seminar on line delivery during their time off? It’s all well and good if we have just one person on the cast who regularly reacts within a scene like this: “Um,     well,      I’m going to say my line now.” Think about Betty saying exactly that, then think about the premiere. Yeah, I thought so.

Really, Mad Men’s main problem is this (and I’m stealing this from the greatest morning show ever, the Tony Kornheiser Show), show creator Matthew Weiner would like to stand atop the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and shout to the world, “See, David Chase! I’m smarter than youuuuuuuu!” He’d like to invade your home and say that to all of us, too, and Mad Men is his vehicle for doing so. It’s great!

But after five seasons the show is leaving some of its best and integral stuff behind: the office. Mad Men is about Madison Avenue, advertising, and the men that ran that world. It needs to stay on Madison Avenue to keep its heart and soul. I want to see less of Betty and her husband and hear more pitches and people working on ideas. It’s fine that they’re trying to push Peggy as the new Don Draper. We all see it, we all like Peggy, we know what you’re doing with her, but she’s going to be Don Draper Lite until she steals a client out from under him with an amazing idea. I don’t care about Don’s Hawaiian revelations about giving a bride away to a fellow GI, let’s see his next brilliant counter to a client’s short-sighted demands.

What I am trying to say really comes down to this:

Stay in the office, Mad Men, that is only place where the show remains interesting.

A Storm of Words

Every copy should have been printed with this art

Every copy should have been printed with this art

I love (lovelovelove) hearing my girlfriend talk about the “A Song of Ice and Fire” books as she reads them. I read things quickly and absorb information into some sort of brain wiki that organizes people, places, and events very well for my instant recall. She’s a slower, more methodical reader who grabs the nuances and unspoken plot development more easily than I do. I really enjoy our conversations when we read the same books. She’s been reading A Storm of Swords for the last……14 hours now. It’s very entertaining to hear her side comments as she delves deeper into George R.R. Martin’s epic. These are side comments I’d like to share with you.

WARNING! Some slight ASOS SPOILERS ahead.

Recent gems from her:

“I think Cersei is putting smallpox in Sansa’s dress.”

“Ugh. Another Catelyn chapter.”

“The only character I care about right now is Tyrion.”

“Catelyn needs to be put in a place where she can’t do any more harm.”

“Ooo, Danaerys is dirty…   ”

“Come on, Ser Jorah! That was a mistake.”

“I love Mance Rayder. That story about the red thread almost made me cry.”

“Who’s the wormy guy again, Theon? I hate him. I’m secretly hoping he’s dead, but I know he can’t be.”

“Ugh, no place is safe for Arya.”

“I want to punch Tywin in the face. I mean, I like him for being the smartest person in the room, but I want to see his downfall.”

“I love this book!” she said. “What’s happening?” I asked. “Nothing, just foreshadowing,” she answered.

And then her reading about the Unsullied and puppies, “UGH. Thanks, George Martin.”

She’s reminding me of how much I want to see the next Game of Thrones season. A Storm of Swords is clearly the best book of the series. one of my best mates calls the book, “Four Weddings and a Hot Pie.” The story crafted within its pages are sublime. Twisting story-arcs and dagger-to-the-gut drama are where Mister Martin excel, but as one of my gf’s comments above say, he’s the master of foreshadowing.

It’s this one area of story-telling that I struggle the most with: how to reveal or suggest the future actions within your story without giving the broad strokes away. If we look back to the first hundred pages of the first ASOIAF series in Game of Thrones, there’s an ominous beginning with the Night’s Watch and the White Walkers, Eddard Stark administering the King’s justice before his son, the direwolf slain by a stag’s horn, Ned and Robert’s moment in the Stark catacombs, Jon and Tyrion’s conversation on fathers and bastards, Lysa Arryn’s letter to her sister casting doubts upon the Lannisters, Bran’s fall from the tower, and Jon’s gift of a sword to Arya. THAT is a packed 100 pages. And the amazing thing? You can find all sorts of aspersions and insinuations through these initial meetings and twists that affect the whole series, all 4600+ pages. And we’re still two books short of the finale.

The sheer amount of planning and creativity that goes into an epic like this is astounding. He shows off everyone, tells whom agrees or disagrees with whom, alludes to rises and falls through symbols, and uses his characters to influence others like none other I have read.

Although there is a flow of acts and rising action in each book, I consider A Storm of Swords to be the rising action of the series as a whole. The three act story arc can be summed up as “Get your characters up a tree, throw stones at  them, then get them out of the tree.” A Storm of Swords is the first volley of stones. I won’t spoil anything further, but this book has some of the largest twists and some of the most wrenching moments, no matter to who’s side you back. The end of A Game of Thrones might have been the first shock to the system, but it was the opening act for a much bolder showcase.

I did reviews for A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons awhile ago and I won’t be submitting one for Storm as of yet, but it would receive some of my highest praise. Listening in to my girlfriend, it receives some of hers, too.  🙂

Why I Suck at League of Legends

Love It or Leave It - LOL

Love It or Leave It – LOL

This all depends on how well you know your memes, but on any given day Riot Games’ League of Legends can either be Good Guy Greg or a Scumbag Steve.

The free to play online battle game is both good and bad because of what it is: free and an online game. Its so simple that kids play it while actually in high school, but complex enough it has a pro circuit. Sounds exactly like Magic: the Gathering, but free. Who could ever be so cleverly evil as to mix those two concepts?

This all started because my brother in law took pity on a n00b (me) and invited me to play some sessions with him and his friends. They were good, I was not. My “brolaw” usually carried the team to victory, while I fed the other team’s more opportunist players. I chose a handful of  champions and got to be passable in those games, but became wore out by being a constant drag on the team. So, I stopped playing for a long while.

The itch came back recently. The itch to farm a lane, the itch to take on the ravenous hordes of internet trolls and LOL junkies, the itch to take anonymous digital abuse. This phenomenon was just explored by a Penny Arcade comic.

I’ve returned to the game, fixed a few things, and got wise to some previous trends that made me suck before: I no longer tower-dive, I know how to last-hit now, and I’ve even upped my ganking skills (skizillz, to the unitiated).

But I still suck.

My chief problem is this: I believed the game had two specific modes: fun mode(Co-op vs. AI) and sodomy mode(PvP). The developers at Riot have created and designed their AI to be competitive and challenging without being ruthless and unrelenting (like human players). I can often pull out a line of 5 kills/5 deaths/15 assists in a game of Co-op. I’d compare that to my most recent foray into PvP which came out as a 1/8/4.

How to improve? I’ve taken a look at some beginner’s guides. This here on TopTierTactics was quite good. Also, the subreddit r/summonerschool has some great information.

I’ve come to some conclusions: I’m playing alone and losing out on the communication aspect that allows teams of players to coordinate their ganks and help. My bro-in-law and his teammates are in constant chatter when they play about where to go and what enemy is where. Communication is a key tool and I’m not using it.

I’m also not a tremendously competitive  person, clearly not in the way that the other LOL’ers are. If  I lose astronomically with a final line of 0/9/6, I’d much rather find a Co-op game where I can have some fun and get some bot kills than return to the PvP to try to correct any mistakes I had. That sort of scenario is hard, again, since a LOL game’s makeup is random and I’m taking a luck of the draw team that usually won’t provide constructive feedback, just harsh criticism. If I want to really improve, it’ll take some resolve and time to suck it up and play. It’s a Sun Tzu thing, “Know thy enemy but not yourself, wallow in defeat every time.” I’ll have to keep sucking to learn my mistakes before improvement begins.

I do want to emphasize that toxic players and rage-trolls that hate on players in the game are usually bringing their team down, most every article I’ve read has said that, too. The game is a game and no one gets where and what they want through belittling another player. Make sure you use the honor system Riot has in place as well as the Tribunal to report abusive jerks. They probably need some more structure in their lives, after all, give them some.

If I want to improve my LOL game, I’ll also need team mates. I’m more heavily invested in a number of games already, so I won’t be soliciting for teachers and advice just yet. I just broke level 17. I’ll keep going casually for fun, but I’m keeping track of mistakes and trying to learn from them. It’s something that most gamers should do if they want to play better, regardless of their chosen format.

Overall, I still suck, but I’m having fun.

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