Moonlight: personal, humanistic, and warm

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It’s easy to see why Moonlight is the most critically acclaimed film of the year. Everything just works as a complete package, with stellar acting, direction, and screenplay. Its humanistic story is memorable, emotionally complex, and subverts racial stereotypes.

Among such skill, it’s Moonlight‘s striking visuals that left the biggest impression on me. Though it has been months since my last viewing, I can recall certain shots as though I saw the film yesterday. With strong saturated colors and high contrast, Wong Kar-Wai is a clear influence. Yet interesting changes in angle, perspective, and a heavy reliance on handheld give this movie its own unique character. (Mild spoilers for Moonlight ahead.)

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La La Land: balancing modernism and classicism

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From the moment I heard La La Land talked up as a “modern” musical, I got worried. Updating older genres and tropes is en vogue these days, but it’s easy to mess up. Balance is key. Some films follow the rules of the past slavishly, making it hard for audiences to connect. Others cheat, creating an entirely modern film with a few half-hearted old school references.

Thankfully La La Land is an exception to this rule. Much of that credit goes to the film’s impeccable costuming, choreography, music, and direction. But I can’t imagine the movie fully gelling together without the skill of DP Linus Sandgren.

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The Nintendo Switch’s lost opportunity

Nintendo has seen better days. The Wii U was a sales disappointment. Competition is fierce with the PS4, Xbox One, PC, and mobile platforms enjoying record sales and attention. Early details suggest the Nintendo Switch won’t pull the venerable gaming company out of its slump.

On the positive front, Nintendo hasn’t lost their knack at hardware innovation. Almost every hands on report praises the Switch’s hardware and build quality. The device easily transitions between home (docked, playing on a TV) and portable modes.

Yet many other specs and stats are worrisome. A $299 base price for the console isn’t crazy in isolation. However, it’s the same price range as the Xbox One and PS4, both bestsellers with an extensive game library. Other costs add up: an extra controller costs $80, $20 more than the competition. Also, there’s now a monthly fee for multiplayer and it’s questionable if Nintendo can provide the same level of service provided on PSN or Xbox Live. Furthermore, several game prices feel unjustified. Nintendo wants $50 for a mini game collection (1-2-Switch) that should have been a pack-in title. Ultra Street Fighter 2, a repackaged fighting game from 2008, costs a rumored $40.

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Gaming trends for 2017

Early signs suggest 2017 will be a conservative year for gaming. The PS4 and Xbox One have little to prove, with an already robust library and huge user base. VR will be fascinating to watch, but mainstream adoption isn’t happening anytime soon. And the disappointing sales of several AAA sequels (Dishonored 2, Titanfall 2, Watch Dogs 2) will make major studios cautious with their output.

Despite all this, several factors may shake up the industry. PC and console gaming have been inching closer together for years; strong PS4 Pro and Scorpio sales should speed up this trend. And Nintendo continues to play a wildcard role. They could transform iOS and Android gaming and revitalize dedicated portable gaming devices.

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Sicario: tension and realism

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Last year’s drug war thriller Sicario was universally praised for its cinematography. Much of that credit goes to Sicario’s DP Roger Deakins, one of the most respected cinematographers working today.

One of Sicario’s standout scenes follows FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) on a van convoy to pick up a drug kingpin. It’s a vehicular sprint from the U.S. to Juarez, Mexico and back again. Tensions rise as threats loom around her and the rest of the convoy. The camera work conveys disorientation, claustrophobia, and the increasing threat of the Mexican drug cartel as Macer and her allies race through the streets. (Spoilers follow for the film’s first 30 minutes.)

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Battlefield 1 needs UI help

Battlefield 1 has received praise for its gritty WWI gameplay, but its pre and post-game user interface need serious work. They are too cluttered and confusing for casual players.

Let’s focus on BF1’s main menu:

Arriving after BF1’s otherwise stellar prologue, the menu is a momentum killer. There are six areas of functionality fighting for attention on this screen. Players can browse game modes and other recommended content in three interactive rows. Each has a different layout and visual aesthetic. There’s also information on profile, party, rank, and a legend to clarify button actions in the screen corners.

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Nintendo Switch in a smartphone world

Never count Nintendo out. Few others can rival their first party games; Mario Kart 8, Splatoon, and others made big impressions well beyond Wii U’s user base. And as the Switch reveal suggests, Nintendo can still deliver innovative hardware.

I’m intrigued that the Switch combines a home and portable console into a single device. It’s practical and catering to a wide range of gameplay. Game output should increase with developers no longer having to pick between two Nintendo platforms. And it’s less gimmicky than the Wii or Wii U.

The Switch’s convertibility may also be its greatest liability. Combining home and portable forces the Switch to make compromises. Likely we’ll see reduced horsepower, input control options, and battery life. All this makes competing against well entrenched rivals, both at home and on the road, that much harder.

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The new Macbook Pro’s limited reach

Two of the Macbook Pro’s most hyped improvements – the Touch Bar and more compact profile – have little benefit to many professionals. I’m worried Apple is increasingly hawking consumer level tech that’s missing the high end market.

At least half of the developers and designers I know work primarily with a Macbook Pro hooked to an external display and paired with an external keyboard and mouse. Ergonomics improve with both displays at similar height and distance. It’s more efficient to scan and drag content given the screens’ proximity. And by driving the setup through a laptop, you still get the flexibility of a portable device for meetings or work on the go.

Therein lies the rub with the Macbook Pro’s Touch Bar. With the aforementioned setup, the Macbook’s distance makes the Bar out of reach and hard to see. Ironically, a setup for serious work nullifies the Bar’s purported productivity benefits. And based on Apple’s pricing segmentation, we’re paying a premium for it as well.

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The PS4 Pro and Sony’s marketing problem

The PS4 Pro has serious potential. It has decent internal specs, a reasonable price point, and follows the popular base PS4. But we’re a less than a month away from the release date, and Sony’s marketing and PR wing feels asleep at the wheel. Performance claims, especially for those without 4K displays, are vague. And there’s few titles or publishers with Pro enhanced games ready for 2016. As someone bullish on a more iterative console cycle (for both Sony and Microsoft), that’s worrisome.

Granted, tech and home theater enthusiasts in the market for a PS4 won’t hesitate for the Pro. They already own 4K set or PS VR, or plan an investment in either over the next year or two. But this is a niche minority of potential buyers. For everyone else, Sony needs to step up its game and provide more information.

The Pro isn’t a routine tech release. This is the first time two consoles both labeled “PS4”, with the same game library and similar feature set, are on sale side by side. Yet one has $100 price tag for premium performance. That’s commonplace in consumer tech, but a first for game consoles. And consoles historically are very sensitive to price differences. Unless the marketing situation changes, I see few outside the enthusiast market paying extra for the Pro.

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A Most Violent Year: beauty within decay

NY skyline, cars

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J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year is the rare crime drama that balances epic and intimate themes well. Chandor’s screenplay makes big statements on capitalism and the American dream. But it’s also microcosmic in its scale, a character study of Abel Morales’ (Oscar Isaac) struggle to protect and grow his heating-oil business.

Abel built his company legitimately, and he takes pride in the righteousness of his decisions. Yet given external threats to his company, AMVY asks how much Abel will give into gangster-like behavior to stay ahead.

As underlined by the title, time and place is key to Abel’s predicament. New York City in 1981 had record high crime rates and was in the midst of a recession. Capturing the city rests on DP Bradford Young. His cinematography is authentic and realistic; rough edges, industrial sprawl and graffiti abound.

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