The Best Labels to Buy Are in the Mid-Range

It’s important when analyzing clothes to buy (btw, when you are spending more than $5 on anything, you absolutely SHOULD be analyzing) that you know what you’re looking at and how a label or manufacturer got to the price point they are asking. As I’ve said before, typically you are paying for materials, quality, style, and the brand name itself. In the fashion industry, all brands have played with these factors to various degrees and have ended up merging into 3 main tiers: low-end, mid-range, and high-end. When you examine these tiers, you can go even further by expanding to 5, to include a junk category at the bottom and a luxury category at the top, or even by separating each tier into 3 more sub-tiers, similar to economic classes. For simplicity’s sake we’ll just focus on these main 3 and the fact that, unlike the U.S. economic equivalent, the mid-range is steadily growing, giving savvy shoppers many more options.

The 3 Tiers

Let’s talk about how the mid-range sets itself apart by first describing the other 2 tiers. The low-end is typified by taking all the aforementioned factors and reducing them to as low as possible while still being able to sell the garment. We’re talking brands with a large team of designers so there’s no unified vision, sweat-shop labor assembly, and no plans for pushing sustainability. You will also likely see them in most malls, including outlets. I don’t think people should be buying these brands in a sizable amount as it’s a gamble whether pieces will hold together after more than a few wears. Plus, because these clothes cost so little, it’s too easy to overspend and accumulate a lot of them, buying into the whole business model. Also, since considerate design for the garments is virtually nil, the way garments fit is often unflattering.

It’s easy to think harshly on these labels, but they do serve a purpose for those who just need a T-shirt or a pair of jeans and don’t want the hassle of researching. The tier is also great for those who haven’t developed their sense of style yet and/or don’t want to put forth a lot of cash to do so–AKA people in their 20s. Brands in the low-end include Old Navy, Dickies, Gap, American Eagle, Nautica, Perry Ellis, and Original Penguin, as well as any fast fashion brands like H&M, Uniqlo, ASOS, and Forever 21. Labels like J Crew, Banana Republic, Michael Kors, and Polo Ralph Lauren could arguably be considered at the upper edge of this tier as well. It’s also worth noting that many low-end labels do great collaborations. Dickies in particular has become quite popular lately with the rise of the workwear/normcore/dadcore trend.

By contrast, the high-end is largely going to be the labels you see on the runway and in magazines like GQ and Esquire. I’m not going to lie, pieces will seem obscenely expensive to the uninitiated, but there are reasons for those price tags, some understandable, some not so much, which make them a better value. The quality of the high-end labels is usually impeccable. Often pieces are made in countries where the laborers make a livable wage, and the materials are superior to the other tiers. It’s virtually guaranteed that garments will last for a decade or more. On the other hand, these labels have a brand to establish and extensive advertising to pay for, so part of the purchase is buying into that scene overall, especially if the piece is more stylish.

I used to say I would never consider buying anything from a high-end fashion house considering their prices, but lately I have softened my stance. If a person wants to buy a classic minimalist garment from one of those brands that they would be assured to be able to pass on to their son or grandson, the high tier is the best choice. Also, if one has the kind of disposable income that they can afford to buy that perfect “of the moment” piece under the assumption that it will look passe in five years, more power to them. I’ve almost done that myself, but never bit the bullet. Brands in the high-end include the likes of Prada, Jil Sander, Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Burberry, Zenga, Balenciaga, Tom Ford, Yohji Yamamoto…the list goes on.

The concept of the mid-range is kind of new as people got tired of being forced to choose between brands that are either inexpensive and designed horribly or super expensive and designed impeccably. There needed to be some sort of middle ground. Thus the mid-range was created to give consumers well-designed, stylish garments at a price point that won’t break the bank. The rise of the mid-range also seems to coincide with rise of menswear through the 00s, which led to the birth of Menswear Fashion Week in New York.

Ami

There’s a special place in my heart for Ami because it was the first label whose style I adored that I could actually afford to own. In 2011, Alexander Matiussi started his Parisian brand after successful tours at Givenchy, Dior, and Marc Jacobs, with a vision of creating simple, colorful, but not ostentatious, garments that can be mixed and matched. A lot of his looks can be adopted straight of the catwalk without needing to live in New York. They are adventurous and simultaneously subtle.

 

Saturdays NYC

Saturdays has thrived as a lifestyle brand since they first opened their doors in New York in 2009, then known as Saturdays Surf. Though they dropped the “surf” out of their name, they still sell surfboards, wetsuits, and other lifestyle materials at their brick and mortar stores. Their clothing calls to mind California cool built with a New York mentality. I’m particularly keen on the Hawaiian shirts that they release when the weather gets warm.

 

NOAH

Brendon Babenzien, the head of NOAH, began his journey at Supreme as the label’s Creative Director. This is part of the reason why so many comparisons are drawn between the two, both being considered skater brands. However, while Supreme exhumes more of a DGAF attitude in their streetwear, NOAH is much more considered and even preppy, complete with seersucker suit separates. The brand is also making efforts toward sustainability and social awareness, which our society needs much more of these days.

 

ACNE Studios

The style of ACNE is unapologetically minimalist owing to its home in Stockholm. Having been founded by Jonny Johansson in 1997, the label eschews many complicated patterns and instead employs alternative tailoring in their design. They also like to play around with off-kilter color combinations in their collections, drawing inspiration from Scandinavian art and culture. In my mind, the brand is remarkably similar to Our Legacy and Norse Projects.

 

Needles

The story behind Needles’ creation is quite a long one, as it’s just one of many labels (including Engineered Garments) founded by New York transplant Keizo Shimizu as part of his Nepenthes umbrella company, itself founded in 1988. Japanese fashion has really exploded lately due to the way the country’s citizens can take items popular in America, reconfigure them, and in effect create something entirely new and different. This is displayed most abundantly in Needles’ lookbooks. The brand’s trackpants especially have become a hot item for any menswear addict to own.

 

Gitman Bros. Vintage

Nothing sets off my alarms faster than seeing a brand that only makes shirts. It is easy and relatively inexpensive for labels to start up, invest some money in the design of one type of garment, and stop there, switching out different fabrics ad infinitum, charging whatever they want for doing virtually minimal design work. However, there are a few that have perfected their version of the button-up and can justify charging a bit more for them. Gitman is one, owing partially to the age of the company, having been founded in 1932. Hamilton Shirt Co. is another. I’m going to use the former as my example here since they are a bit more casual and trendy with their offerings.

 

It’s notable how young most of these brands are compared to the other tiers, leading to a more youthful, trendy, and modern image. There are many more labels worth your consideration such as A.P.C., Steven Alan, Stüssy, Officine Générale, Todd Snyder, Solid Homme, Sid Mashburn, Rag & Bone, John Elliot, Wacko Maria, Billy Reid, and Folk. In fact, some labels that had already been well-established have created other spinoff lines to compete in the same market, Rugby Ralph Lauren (now defunct), Carhartt WIP, LL Bean Signature, and Land’s End Canvas among them. Of course, discussing every single quality, mid-range brand out there would get exhausting.

The key is to find the ones that fit your personal style the best and get on their mailing lists for updates. This is the best way to score pieces that fit exactly what you’re looking for and keep informed on sales to buy those items for even cheaper. Using Mr. Porter can also be great because you can get their updates for multiple brands. Of course, that’s only for the pieces they’ve curated for their collection, but that can keep you from getting overwhelmed.

Your mileage may vary, but if you’re in a style rut, I encourage you to go forth and explore. Let me know what labels you feel inspired by in the comments.

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“Hereditary” Review

Score: 4.5/5

The horror genre has had an interesting life. If you ask someone to name off horror movies, you likely will get many of the classic series that began in the 70s and 80s: Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween. However, it’s debatable if any of the typical genre movies could actually be considered good, worth watching, making you think about them for days. This is because there was a long time, particularly through most of the 90s and early 00s, when horror was considered a niche genre filled with easy jump scares, unrelatable villains, and defenseless damsels in distress, all of which sacrifice any stakes or deeper meaning. Any decent horror movie of that period had to step outside the bounds of those tropes to make a sizable box office grab. The rest ended up flopping or going quickly to video to try to make as much money as possible. Thus many good, scary movies aren’t strictly horror films but a blend of other genres as well.

Today things are quite different for the genre. Directors have begun to find different ways to frighten us while still managing to tell great stories. They’ve learned that mixing in other elements such as science fiction or drama helps broaden the appeal of the movie while making the story more relatable. They’ve also found that constant suspense, atmosphere, the feeling that you know something is going to happen you just don’t know when, work as a much better fear tactics than the jumps of yesteryear. Using these methods, a director can still craft and tell a story while scaring the watcher now and then. There are some great examples of using this style to great effect just in the last few years–The Witch, It Follows, Get Out–all of which I recommend seeing.

Hereditary is the newest member of this new breed of horror. It stars the wonderful and talented Toni Colette (Little Miss Sunshine, United States of Tara) as Annie, who really played this part for all it’s worth. Telling too much about the movie’s plot, or even comparing it to other movies with similar premises, would probably spoil it, but I can say that the film begins with the death and funeral of Annie’s mother. Like any family, this one has its demons and the sudden loss causes many emotions and event that have been tucked away or ignored to be confronted head on. Later in the movie, the great Ann Dowd (The Leftovers, The Handmaid’s Tale) makes an appearance as Joan, who wants to comfort Annie in her grief. The story is a complete downward spiral with not much in the way of levity, a constant grief building throughout with an ending that just begs to be explored.

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Each of the four members of the family serves a distinct purpose for the the film: Annie is our window into this world, Steve is the largely absent and disbelieving father, Peter is the average everyday teenager, and Charlie is the troubled child. I have to say that the casting director did an excellent job finding talented actors to embody each of these roles. As I said, Toni is amazing in this role. She always seems to excel when playing a manic mother and wife. But the real find here is Millie Shapiro who plays Charlie, which is her first true acting gig. There’s always a risk in using new child actors, but after this performance, Millie may see a lot of doors open for her.

Jump scares have almost been completely supplanted in Hereditary with horrific imagery and tense situations. However, that might be to its detriment for people who are less cerebral when they watch movies. Those who are expecting to being scared of the things they see may be disappointed by the fact that this movie wants the viewer to be scared of those that they can’t. This is the premise of psychological horror, where the fear comes from thinking about the possibilities rather than viewing concrete events. For the most part, Hereditary excels at this. What makes this movie particularly scary is that through most of its runtime the scenes depicted could actually happen to a family who were all simply losing their minds. At one point I wondered if these four were actually dead and didn’t know it, like a certain other movie Toni was in.

Unfortunately, it’s never particularly clear on what some of the imagery means that is depicted. I don’t want to give any specific examples, but it seems to place importance on some recurring events without ever explaining any deeper meaning to them. I found it best to take these things with a grain of salt, but some viewers may be annoyed. The movie also could have been a little tighter at explaining the consequences of the events depicted. Though I was left considering facets of the movie afterward and how well done they were, I was confused about why anyone should ultimately care if this happened in real life. It also wasn’t completely clear to me whether or not the overall goal was ever achieved.

My small gripes aside, Hereditary is a spectacular addition to the horror genre. Even my husband, who says he doesn’t like horror movies, loved it. Let me know what you thought of the movie and feel free to discuss spoilers below.

Stardew Valley Review (Vita)

Score: 4/5

It’s not outlandish to say that retro games and pixelated graphics are a huge trend in the gaming industry today. While many AAA game studios are trying to make their product look as realistic as possible in order to blur the lines between fact and fiction, many indie studios have taken the exact opposite approach to development. It could be said that, in viewing games as an art form, it doesn’t really matter how realistic the graphics are. In fact, even better if a developer can get the point across without spelling it out for the gamer. It could also be said that these developers want to create games that give the same kinds of experiences as the ones they grew up with. Who needs Call of Duty when you have Galaga?

This sort of simple gaming and non-handholding is the mentality behind Stardew Valley, which at its heart is a reskinning of Harvest Moon. In fact, your in-game character leaves his/her busy, dead-end life in the city specifically to lead a simple life without all the hustle and bustle. That’s basically where the story begins and you, as the player, are left to your own devices to figure things out as you go along. Through the first year, you will get some equipment and other abilities unlocked as you get to know the villagers. Beyond that, your path is yours to develop. This may sound daunting or intimidating for those who aren’t used to this sort of game, but there isn’t much in the way of punishment for experiments gone wrong.

Throughout your stay in Pelican Town, you will have to split your time between 5 different categories of skills: farming, mining, foraging, fishing, and combat. Skills will each gain experience as you accomplish tasks within those groups. As each of these skills are leveled up, the player will gain access to crafting recipes, increased proficiencies, even more professions to choose from based on your playing style. Most of this stuff happens in the background and, though you can check your progress in the menu, you likely won’t realize how much you’ve developed until you get the level-up message.

Time will advance through the 4 seasons with each season having 28 days. Each season has its own crops to grow, foraging items to pick, and fish to catch. Mining and combat are mostly done in the mine, which can be described as rogue lite. The layout of each floor of the mine will always be the same and specific important floors will always be the same. However, all the floors in between will have randomly generated enemies to fight and objects to mine. Through all your actions, by the end of the day you will end up acquiring a lot of items which you will need to bring back to your farm, dropping them in a bin in order to be sold overnight. Each day begins with showing you how much cash you made from your sales and an automatic game save.

There are ways to evolve your character socially as well. Many villagers inhabit Pelican Town and it is up to you to grow your relationship with each of them by performing tasks for them. Many times, this amounts to bringing them items they want. As your relationship grows, they will reveal things about themselves. Eventually you will be able to marry certain NPCs and have a child with them. One of the interesting things about this relationship system is that you have free reign to choose a male or female, regardless of your character’s gender.

There are many more activities and features in Stardew Valley, such as festivals and bundles, but listing and describing each one would make this article much longer than it really needs to be. Suffice to say, you won’t be bored often or be without some goal in mind or duty to fulfill.

Unfortunately, this game does have a few shortcomings, one of which circles back to its core premise. I can appreciate not holding a player’s hand as so many games do, but I found it very irritating how little this game explains what to do. Fishing specifically was never explained and took me a few in-game weeks to figure out on my own. Also many fish appear only at certain times of the day, in certain seasons. As these fish are needed for bundles which unlock more of the game, missing them can add on another in-game year to a playthrough. The only way to figure out when and where specific fish are is to look online. Yet another important omission is explaining the importance of grass. In the beginning of the game, you’re left to assume it is a nuisance that should be cleared from the farm. It isn’t until after you have built a silo that you find out all the grass you previously cut could have been turned to hay for your farm animals. A player should be able to relax while playing this game and not resort to studying guides. This information could easily be added in-game.

Another issue I had was how difficult it is to farm crops, which really is the bedrock of the game. I once played a Harvest Moon game (don’t remember which one) in which the directional pad moved the character a certain direction without having them face that direction while the joystick moved them normally. This helped save an enormous amount of time and frustration while watering, planting, tilling, etc. This feature is completely absent in Stardew Valley. Needless to say, I tried a number of different methods to farm crops more efficiently and almost always left frustrated. This kind of feature would also be handy when laying out hay for farm animals early on.

My final major issue (and this will hopefully be fixed with subsequent versions, but should be mentioned nonetheless) is that the game seems to crash constantly. It probably has had to reboot around 2 dozen times after normal play. This wouldn’t be quite such an annoyance if the player was allowed to save the game manually. A manual save option would at least possibly keep someone from having to do an entire day’s work over again. Once, the game literally crashed as it was saving at the beginning of a new day. And yes, I was hot. Due to the random nature of parts of the game, a crash like this can lead to losing powerful weapons or a sizable catch.

Stardew Valley, while not a new game anymore, has been worth the wait for the Vita version. The handheld seems to be a natural fit for the game and I have enjoyed taking it with me on the go. Despite its issues, it’s easy to get lost in the game’s many features, constantly evolving my character and what I’m able to do, appreciating the beautiful pixel art that wouldn’t look out of place on a Super Nintendo or Game Boy Advance. My suggestion is to sit back, relax, and let the game play itself as you move your character around. You can always start over if you want and there is no real “end” to the game. Enjoy!

Think of Your Wardrobe as an Investment

I realized recently that I still had yet to post a piece based on my biggest passion: men’s style. I admit I’ve been sort of shying away from the topic for a couple reasons. The first is that I had a very bad experience with my material being stolen by another, more popular style blog many years ago, which has sort of tainted the whole blogosphere in my mind. The second reason is that I wanted to have my first posting in this area to be profound, so I was searching the recesses of my inner being for the perfect topic. Alas, I have arrived at this point with both more confidence in myself and less caring as to what others think, probably gained from doing several other posts prior to this one.

I will come out now and say, I love men’s fashion and style, and I hope to eventually develop a career in the industry. At different points, I’ve toyed with the idea several career paths including fashion journalist, menswear boutique owner, and personal stylist. I gained a little experience on that last one, helping a few people without receiving much compensation (I didn’t really ask for it), and I enjoyed acting as a sounding board while also educating men on clothing and things to be aware of. I believe that knowing more about the clothing that you are buying will help you form more of an emotional connection to it which will then empower you to express yourself with the garments you wear.

One of the most common complaints I get from people is how expensive good clothes are. Over the last few decades, certain brands and department stores have driven down the price of clothing in order to get people to buy more easily without second guessing themselves. Some of the qualities of garments that are sacrificed to get to that lower price point are invisible to the average consumer, things like materials and construction. The end result of falling for this type of consumerism is having a drawer stuffed full of 40 T-shirts but only ever wearing 15 of them. Because those shirts are made of inferior material, they then need to be replaced sooner, which in effect increases the cost.

It should be noted that “price” here is not the same as “cost”. While the former refers to the purchase price of the garment, the latter factors in the price plus other variables such as having to replace or repair the item. As such, many items from H&M bear a high cost even though they are priced low. Generally, higher clothing prices are justified by an increase in one or more other factors such as quality, brand popularity, style, and fit. Some (most) may balk at a T-shirt priced at $85, but you can rest assured that if that brand is not super hyped like Balenciaga and is pretty basic in style, that shirt would last you a lot longer than its dirt-cheap contemporary from Old Navy, provided you take care of it properly. In essence, that drawer 40 T-shirts at $15 a-piece may end up costing you more over 5 years, due to replacement costs, than a stack of 7 T-shirts at $85 a-piece. Plus the more expensive shirts would likely fit your body better.

I like to tell people that they should think of articles of clothing like pieces of furniture. They are similarly priced and you can only buy so many before going broke. No matter a person’s income bracket, our wardrobes are not supposed to be jam-packed with as many garments as possible. We are supposed to be curating the things that we buy, choosing the highest possible quality we can purchase while simultaneously balancing the factors of price and style. Whenever you purchase something, and this applies not only to clothing but everything else as well, it should give you pause, but it shouldn’t hurt when you go through with it. If you buy anything without thinking too much about it, that’s a problem. Throwing a tee in your cart because it’s cheap or on sale is the clothing equivalent of absentmindedly eating popcorn while you watch a movie. Eventually that popcorn will make you fat and you have to figure out how to shed the pounds.

So start now. Go forth and shed those pounds of clothes. Start treating your wardrobe like an investment that will pay dividends in style and functionality.

PS – If you are still cringing at the prices of some items, keep in mind that in this age of flourishing online menswear boutiques, you can find many designer pieces at significantly discounted prices, especially if you don’t mind waiting a season for it. I once scored a wool cricket sweater from Kent & Curwen for 50% off (probably around $270) because I was vigilant and patient.

Customer Service Can Make or Break an Internet-Based Business

We’ve all heard the old adage, “The customer is always right.” When taken literally, this motto is clearly bogus. After all, some customers want the world and will take advantage of the system whenever they see weakness. This is what led LL Bean to do away with their once-famous lifetime warranty. However, most customers are decent people who just don’t want to be screwed over and so the spirit behind the axiom is what all businesses and employees should keep in mind: Go out of your way to keep the customer happy. Many businesses are scared of having any losses, but they don’t realize that if they leave the customer dissatisfied, they’ve likely lost any future business from them and everyone they know. If a customer leaves an exchange happy, especially if the rules are bent a little to accommodate, that customer will continue to do business and tell all their friends to do the same.

Off the top of my head, I can think of a number of companies that refused to work with me, making my life very difficult until they eventually relented. I’ll stick to the two big ones. The first is Krups, beloved maker of coffee machines. My husband loves coffee and can’t start his day without a few cups, so one Christmas, wanting him to have the best coffee possible, I decided to buy him a grind and brew machine sold by the brand. Imagine my surprise when my SO opened the box on the holiday morning and it wasn’t the coffeemaker I ordered. I went to the Krups site and they said that since Amazon shipped the package they would also handle the return. Weeks went by after sending it back, and there was no response or refund. I ended up speaking to no less than seven people between Krups and Amazon, both of them saying the other was responsible. As we explained to each one, I followed the procedure I was led to believe was correct, and the coffeemaker, which was wrongly sent, was no longer in my possession. Finally, a man we talked to from Krups approved the return and refunded my money with no complaints.

It’s interesting that even some well-known companies can have horrible customer service. One of them is West Elm, a seller of modern furniture. The fact that the quality of their furniture is not as good as their prices would suggest could be the subject of another post, so I’ll just stick to the current topic. The details of story are much too complicated, but gist is that I ordered some items online, an associate in person cancelled it while it was en route, then I had him order some other things for me. The credit card didn’t run properly the first time, so he tried it again and it worked. I ended up with three orders at my condo. Because of the company’s convoluted processes, when an order is placed in-store, which two of them were, I have to talk to them directly to do a return. I ended up getting refunds for two of the orders but only sent one back because of all the hassle. I decided to sell the excess merchandise and made a profit, so it wasn’t all bad.

Krups, West Elm, Han Kjobenhavn, Sprint, the US Postal Service…I will actively try not to do business directly with any of the companies that make simple transactions a complete nightmare. On the other hand, I have many more examples of businesses that seem to go out of their way to make me happy. The first is obviously Amazon, who will let me return most merchandise, has given me refunds for packages that are stolen, even reimbursed me for some purchases without returning them. I honestly believe their excellent customer service is what led them to become the powerhouse that they are today. This is because when you give your customer a seamless experience where they can make purchases with confidence, they will return for more.

I also had a great experience with Design Within Reach once that has won me over. Now they are the first place I go looking for housewares or design inspiration. The SO had purchased the company’s Flight recliner on sale several months before a small spring broke and popped off. I could tell where it needed to go, we just needed a replacement. After a long exchange with their customer service, they sent us the wrong spring. Twice. Then they dragged their feet on sending a repairman to come fix it for us. What initially started as a bad experience completely shifted when we ended up talking to someone pretty high up in the company who okayed us exchanging our old chair for a brand-new, replacement recliner in a completely different color (which wasn’t on sale). Needless to say, I’ve spent a lot of money with them as a result.

The last example I have hasn’t necessarily gone out their way for me, but their standard policies are still such that I can buy anything on their site with complete confidence that I can return it if things don’t work out. Mr. Porter has taken the online menswear market by storm with their curated offerings and on-point stylings. They tell and show the shopper as much as they can about a garment so that the individual can make an informed choice about their purchase. Standard shipping often only takes two days and is completely free. They even let you return sale merchandise, which is practically unheard of in the clothing industry. I really wish more companies would adopt these policies because I have opted out of many purchases or spent more money than I should have due to the lack of this kind of support. Similar to DSW, Mr. Porter has become the first place I go when shopping for clothes online.

My suggestion for every business that sells a product is to adopt a policy of always trying to make the customer happy, within limits. Instruct employees on sometimes bending the rules a little to ensure the customer comes back. To every potential customer out there, you should recognize good customer service when you see it. Reward it by soliciting that company more often. I still feel guilty that I haven’t bought anything more from Noble Denim after they treated me right (I just don’t have a need for more jeans), but maybe I can pass on the good recommendation.

I have noticed over the years that the companies that have excellent customer service have grown substantially while those that seemed not to care about the customer are in a sort of stasis. (Jury’s still out on Han Kjobenhavn. They are doing a lot of collaborations these days. Chances are I just got a bad service rep.) The point is, if companies take care of their customers, they will return the favor. These policies are more important now in the digital age where if a customer doesn’t like one business, they can easily find a similar product offered elsewhere.

How bout you guys? Any great customer service stories to share, and hence businesses we should keep in mind?

We Should Only Watch Objectively Good Movies

Many people eschew the opinions of professional critics. The popular feeling is that this group fancies themselves as “better” than the masses. They presume to be able to tell whether a work of art is worth consuming or ignoring altogether. Sometimes they have so much power over the general public that if a piece is critically panned, it will end up flopping even though a studio has spent years producing it, with great marketing campaigns and star power to back it up. Perhaps that fact alone is why critics are abhorred, we never want to give one person or group too much power and we certainly never want to believe that we aren’t in complete control over how we observe something. We are all individuals!

But that presents something of a problem. All art, no matter what kind it is, is a group effort. It is (usually) created by a group, it is consumed by a group. No two people will ever see a piece quite the same way because how it affects them reflects on their own personal experiences in life. Humans are social animals and as such we draw on others to see things from a different angle that we wouldn’t have considered on our own. Therefore, when coming to a conclusion on the quality of a movie, we should always seek to get other people’s opinions, not for validation of our own or to argue whose is right or wrong but to expand our frame of reference beyond our initial impressions. Who better to give us more worldly points of view than people who are paid to do so?

So by now I have you sold on the idea that critics, at the least, are not your enemy. So then each of us has to decide how much power to give them. In a perfect world, we would all have a personal assistant who was perfectly attuned to how we think. Our assistants would see each movie ahead of time and let us know ahead of time what movies we want to see. Netflix sort of does this with its rating system, but ever since they incorporated the whole thumbs-up, thumbs-down system, I’ve found myself struggling to rate the movies I would have rated 3 stars before. Since finding that one reviewer that seems synced to your interests is like finding a needle in a haystack, I’ve found it most useful to use critical aggregators in order to get a general consensus of a movie.

However, the same score on different aggregators can mean very different things. The three main scores to keep in mind are iMDB, Metacritic, and Rotten Tomatoes. The iMDB score is an aggregation of user scores. I’ve found user scores to be very biased, especially when a movie is first released, so that score is generally unreliable. Metacritic is my favorite, as it averages together all critical scores. The best way to put the score into context is that their metascore is close to how most people would score it themselves. Rotten Tomatoes is very misunderstood because most people assume it works the same as Metacritic. However, the former’s score represents the percentage of critics who would recommend seeing the film. In essence, their score is the chance that an individual will enjoy the movie. All this is to say, each of these has their own way of telling you whether you should see a movie or not.

So should we let other people’s experiences dictate whether or not we should see a film? I would argue yes, resoundingly. The internet has allowed everyone to be more social than ever, sharing in each other’s experiences. These days, if you spend money on anything you don’t have personal experience in without first consulting sites like Yelp, Amazon, or the review section of any online retailer, you can truly be throwing caution to the wind and money down the drain. Putting this back in the context of movies, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked out of a movie and said, “Well that’s two hours I’ll never get back.” Who has time for that? I’ve also found that, ever since I started only seeing movies that score an 80 on Metacritic, I’m seeing movies that make me consider them more deeply. The best films will leave a strong impression on you afterwards, sometimes making you consider them for days.

Of course, there is still a place for bad movies. Mystery Science Theater 3000 spawned an entire franchise based on watching them. I still say “Rabbit!” every time I hear the word because of Dirty Love. Hell, just saying my first name to some people leads them to recite lines from Friday. Bad movies do serve a purpose, but just like junk food, they should only be consumed sparingly, not as a main form of sustenance. And I wouldn’t recommend actually spending money to see one. If we all make a group effort to do research before we subject ourselves to a director’s will, we can hopefully make the industry better as a whole while saving our own time, money, and sanity at the same time.

Why Can’t a Series Be Just One Season?

Today I want to address an ever-present issue. As everyone is certainly aware, we are deep within the Golden Age of Television. While it is complex understanding how we got here (perhaps the subject of another post), there is no question that networks are continuing to churn out quality content that leads us to experience genuine emotions. The serial drama in particular has become something of a default genre for most shows worth watching. Though it was once assumed that films had all the greatest stars, times have changed as many actors who previously frequented the silver screen have switched over to the small one.

As is frequently the case with any type of medium, some of the best series to watch originated in another form, most often as books or graphic novels. I have to admit that I prefer most forms of art, including movies and TV shows, in their original forms, but with life being so short and all, who has time to read all those great books when you can get basically the same experience from watching it in a fraction of the time? It is debatable how truly “original” a work can be when it is actually an interpretation of another person’s work, but my issue is that there is a growing number of shows being made where the conclusion of the original source material coincides with the derivative’s first season finale.

On its face, this is not really a problem. TV shows made from books often don’t translate well to the screen unless certain liberties are taken. This is left to the showrunners, directors, and producers to figure out. As we see with Game of Thrones, a series can continue to flourish after it surpasses the source material. Sure, more events are occurring at a lightning fast pace (how did they get a fleet of ships from one side of the continent to the other in one episode?), but some would say that is preferable to the leisurely pace the show had taken up to that point. One could also say that this example doesn’t even really count because George RR Martin is still alive and plans to (eventually) finish the last two books. But what if he doesn’t? In the end, what if these last three seasons of the show are all we have to see of Mr. Martin’s vision? Will we be satisfied?

I give Game of Thrones a pass because even when I was reading the first book, I imagined that it would make a great TV series. When it was picked up by HBO, everyone assumed that the books would be finished before the end of the show, so as the situation changed, the network had to adapt. There are many other examples where there was no intent other than capitalizing on people’s ignorance. Therein lies the issue. Network executives are so quick to greenlight subsequent seasons of this new type of show that they don’t stop to think if they should. They think if the rest of the series can ride the coattails of the first successful season long enough, they will make more money through advertising before people wise up and realize the show is garbage. They just cross their fingers hoping that they can at least break even.

Let’s look at another example. Wayward Pines was a mildly creepy science fiction mystery based on a trilogy of books. The series itself was pretty competent though it was obvious M. Night Shyamalan was adding in his signature twists. The first season deftly covers all three books by the conclusion of the finale. In fact, the show was initially intended to be just a one season mini-series. But then Fox renewed it for a second season to the bewilderment of literally everyone. Viewership was reportedly not so high that they had a potential hit on their hands, so its anyone’s guess what the executives were thinking. The first season provided perfect closure, so no one watched the second season. I admit that I watched a few episodes until I felt like my time could be better spent. Pointless characters, horrible acting, no direction…it was a mess. The show was subsequently put on an 18-month “hiatus” until Fox finally made the announcement this past February that it was cancelled.

The almighty Netflix has even fallen victim to this trend. Thirteen Reasons Why was something of a hit when it was released for streaming as it was an unflinching examination of teenage suicide. Again, reviews were positive but not outstanding and the first season provided closure as it coincided with the end of the popular young adult novel. Sounding familiar? For some reason, the streaming service decided that it would renew the show for a second season. I haven’t watched the season myself, but from what I’ve heard and read, the show went off the rails and doesn’t have any reason to exist. They also end each episode with a PSA to the effect of, “If you are considering suicide, please get help,” which is a reaction to the uptick in real-world teenage suicides attributed to the first season’s release. It almost seems as though the second season was made as a plug for the PSAs, like Netflix was apologizing for itself.

“But Craig,” you might be saying, “The Leftovers was a book and the show was amazing.” Let’s unpack that. I agree that the show was great. I was on the edge of my seat most episodes. I still don’t totally understand everything that happened in the plot. But that’s the difference: The Leftovers only used the idea of the book as a jumping off point, going in a completely different direction. They weren’t looking to create a literal interpretation of the book or the world. This is exemplified in the series finale, where you don’t know if what is being described actually happened or not. The show never went out of its way to explain anything; the whole plot was up to interpretation. Some of the events from the first season were taken from the book, but I’d say they actually reimagined the book in TV show form. By taking such liberties with the source and providing a strong visual narrative, the showrunners were able to create something entirely their own and the result became an iconic must-see show, thus surpassing the book.

The same might be said for The Handmaid’s Tale (which ironically costars Ann Dowd who was also in The Leftovers). The first season was tremendous when it was released, and was a pretty faithful reworking of the source material from what I’ve heard. When the second season was announced, with the showrunners saying they’d show us more of their world, I was skeptical. I have to say that, though most people seem to be enjoying the new season now that it’s out, I didn’t really warm to it until the back half. Though the first season was dour, it remained hopeful. June (Offred) had a sort of rebellious charm about her, which made the show not so bleak. When the second season started, it just seemed to go nowhere and only wanted to show the audience how horrible everything is in their world. Everything just kept getting worse. Now that June’s rebelliousness is back in full force, it is more interesting, but I don’t agree that it is as good a show as it was when it was interpreting the source material.

We will have to wait and see what happens with Big Little Lies when its next season is released as even the first season had a few issues with interpreting the source. The second season may rectify some of those mistakes, but it seems the most critical factor contributing to the success of a show of this type is the talent and vision of the individuals at the helm. The goal of continuing beyond the bounds of the original book needs to be established in pre-production, not after the show is renewed. There are precious few examples of these kinds of series actually being worth watching past their first seasons. Something needs to change.

As we are in peak TV, there is no shortage of great shows to watch, and personally, I’m tired of the attempts to trick the audience into watching a substandard show that can’t live up to the hype of its first season. These efforts to take advantage of what the executives believe is an ill-informed public result in wasted time by both the people making the series and the people watching the result of their work. My guess is that if someone doesn’t like a show, they aren’t going to be buying any of the products in the advertisements anyway. Perhaps the problem isn’t that talented people aren’t involved in making the shows but that most of these shows should simply stop at the end of their first season, when the source material concludes. Only the truly successful, high-quality shows are picked up to full series. The Brits do this. The Japanese do this. America should do it, too.

Backlogs and Other Projects

May 12, 2018 was an important day for me. Yes, after working on and off for 15 years, I finally received a Bachelor’s degree. But more than that, I came to realize I have a large number of things I’ve been putting off doing over the last 10 years, and especially the last 5, in favor of doing schoolwork or anything else I had going on. Now that I accomplished a goal, I have magically transformed (cue the Sailor Moon music!) into a goal-driven person.  Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.

The one thing that I have been putting off for even longer than I had attended post-secondary education is my backlog of video games. Ironically, though it has been neglected, it just keeps getting bigger. Like a weed. Ever since I started trolling through the Playstation Network and seeing how many great free and discounted games are available through my PS+ membership, I’ve been a little…unrestrained. On top of that, it is much easier to accumulate things when you don’t physically have to store them in your closet and have more disposable income.

At first my backlog was just some sort of intangible blob in the back of my mind. One day I would surely get to all of my games, however many there were, some day. I mean, I paid for them, so I can’t waste money. But then I decided that in order to tackle this festering cancer, I needed to know what I was dealing with. Somehow, I ended up reading an article on the subject (maybe on Kotaku?) and going through the comment section. As an aside, I’ve always found Kotaku’s comment section to be the most informed and intelligent on the internet.

One thread was discussing how they keep track of their backlog, suggesting a few different sites and even just Google Sheets. I groaned at the thought of using a site to do all this work after I already entered all this information into an app on my phone 4 years ago. It is more for scanning physical games, which at that point was the bulk of my collection, and used to be a great way to keep track of them all along with pictures, selling prices, and review scores. It’s called Video Games Database Scanner, but I do not recommend it unless you are a collector. Even then, the app needs an overhaul as much of its original functionality has ceased.

The one suggestion made in that comment section was for a site called Backloggery. After exploring the site myself, I groaned again at how simple the interface was. While graphically, it looked like a site that was built on Internet 1.0, entering a number of games into my list wasn’t the easiest experience due to a few flaws in the system. Otherwise, after managing to create my backlog with every game I owned, both digital and physical, I found that I have around 500 games I need to play through.

That should be the end of the story, but along the way I realized something about myself: I’m no longer a collector. At least, I don’t want to be. I live in DC and storage space comes at a premium here. I don’t like storing or displaying things unless they have a purpose and as I’ve matured (haha), I’ve learned that game cases are very ugly. I’ve also moved many times and have had to carry them all to each new home. So if I don’t want to display them and I don’t want to store them, why do I still have them? Thus began another project I’ve been putting off: selling things on eBay.

I’m now simultaneously going through my (still growing) backlog and selling physical games that have better digital versions. As I grow into my new life of having free time, I’ve decided I need to clear all the clutter out of home and life. By having less “stuff” I will be able to focus on the few things left that really matter. I’ve also found that as I complete more projects, such as whittling down my Facebook friends to only the 200+ people I actually know or care about, I feel a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes it’s the little things we do that help give us a boost of confidence.

So how bout you? What projects can you complete within a few days to help you feel more accomplished?

Iconoclasts Review (Vita)

Score: 8

After reading numerous glowing reviews of this game, and finding out it was yet another gem I could play on my Vita, I decided it was time to venture forth and play through. Though I usually find myself playing RPGs, the Metroidvania games also hold a special place in my heart because, like the aforementioned genre, they have a method of building on themselves like the plot of a high-quality serial drama. That comparison is especially poignant in this case as, unlike most side-scrollers, there are some deep topics explored in the script. Concepts of religious zealotry, existentialism, and environmentalism, among others, are used quite liberally, to mixed effect.

Those topics don’t detract too much from the overall fun, colorful experience. All over the screen are bright, pixelated flourishes. Even though pixel art has really blown up over the last few years to point of becoming tired, the art style depicted here is very welcome. Like any form of art, it’s not the style that will draw people in but how developer uses it to construct his vision. The bouncy chiptune soundtrack fits right in with the graphics and other sound effects such as running and jumping round out the experience. While it may seem like the game is leaning too hard into the nostalgia bit, there is great care taken here to only use it at a jumping off point.

What really shines in Iconoclasts is the action and puzzle-solving. The developer continues to come up with inventive ways to get the player thinking about the environment and how to use it to their advantage, both in and out of battle. In the beginning you will be simply whacking the bad guys with a wrench, but by the end you will be bombing blocks while certain invulnerable enemies are on top of them so that the baddie will be impaled on spikes. While these sorts of mechanics can be exciting, especially if the player learns how to employ them before it’s too late, they can also be extremely frustrating. More than once I had to reset a screen or intentionally kill myself in battle because succeeding necessitated careful tactics from the very beginning. One wrong step meant failure.

This leads me to the next issue, as the point of succeeding at solving puzzles usually results in receipt of some material that the player can trade in for an upgrade. I love upgrades! Especially when I can stack all of them and create an invincible character late in the game, thus easily destroying the final boss(es). Unfortunately, in this game only three upgrades can be equipped at a time. In the beginning, I thought that later on I may get the ability to equip more as the game went on, but that never happened. There are also only so many upgrades to buy after which acquiring more materials serves no purpose. It would make the game much more fun if all the upgrades were automatically applied as they are purchased and if there were many more available.

As mentioned earlier, the script can be a little dark. As this genre is derived from two franchises that are well-known for their grim stories (hunting life-draining alien life forms and exploring castles filled with demonic hordes), this kind of tale is expected and welcome. My issue here is that, while the first 3 hours or so induced many chuckles and eye-rolls, after that the writing becomes more and more dour. This fact is exacerbated by the numerous syntactically strange sentences. It’s almost as if normal words and phrases were thrown into a blender and the result pored out onto the screen. It’s tough to sit back and enjoy a story when I have to read things more than once just to understand what’s being said. Because of the tonal shift, the feeling abated that initially grabbed my attention, leaving me to want to skip through much of the text so I could just get to the next battle.

Overall, Iconoclasts is a very capable game. Nothing seems overtly broken and most of my time spent with the title was enjoyable. However, there is a general feeling I get while I’m playing that Konjak was tired of working on this game toward the end and just sort of did what he had to do to get it out the door. That is understandable considering he worked on it mostly by himself for 8 years, but a little more buff and polish would have gone a long way here. As a game gets closer to “perfection,” its smaller flaws are much more noticeable. I can’t say the glowing praise the game gets from most reviewers is warranted, but if you are looking for a good indie game to pass the time for a week or two, I would recommend giving this one a play-through.