What I Read August 2019

Two books a month. That is the most I can apparently manage now. I really wanted to make better use of my summer, but I didn’t read nearly as much as I intended to. I have hopes that, even with school starting and a lot of things on my plate, I can finish 3 or 4 books in September. None of them will be all that long, but they will be finished.

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

John Steinbeck

This is Steinbeck’s unfinished translation/adaptation of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. The stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are always fun. It hurts that this is unfinished, so there was no opportunity for Steinbeck to really establish a through line. As it stands, it is a loosely connected collection of short adventures featuring a handful of Arthurian characters, with some attempts to turn it into a cohesive story. I really enjoyed reading it. The only thing I was really able to draw out of it, or at least only new thing, was a harsh look at how these stories treat women. Spoiler alert: it’s not great. The most baffling tale in this regard is the story of Sir Pelleas. That story was one of the fully new to me stories in this book. Sir Pelleas is a great knight, but the woman he loves, Ettarde, spurns his advances. He then starts to essentially stalk her. There really isn’t any other way to interpret his actions. Then Gawain shows up and tries to help Pelleas by faking Pelleas’s death. This doesn’t work, and Gawain sleeps with Ettarde. Pelleas finds out and Gawain flees. Then Nimue/Nyneve shows up, falls in love with Pelleas and curses Ettarde. The story seems to think Ettarde was the villain, but I do not understand how.

Still, for the most part these are very entertaining stories. Reading this makes me want to track down other version of the King Arthur stories, or maybe just read The Once and Future King again.

The Briar King

Greg Keyes

I bought this on a whim at a used book store, and it sat on my shelf for more than two years. I had not heard anything about this series or its author going in. The Briar King was a pleasant surprise. The book follows some scattered viewpoints in a world that appears to be the landing place of the colonists who disappeared from Roanoke. That note doesn’t seem to play into anything but the set up, so far. One thread follows Aspar, a holter who is hunting the greffyn, a kind of poisonous mystical beast. On the way, he saves another protagonist, Steven the aspiring monk. While Aspar spends the whole book either chasing or being chased, Steven uncovers some plots in the monastery where he begins his study. Then there is the central kingdom. King William, is not an especially good king, though he appears to try hard. One difficulty he has had to deal with is his lack of an heir. He has several daughters and one son who is mentally challenged. To start the book he amends the succession laws to place his daughters in the line of succession. His siblings, especially his brother the chancellor, help him with ruling the county, even as there are threats on the lives of his wife and children.

All these stories, and a couple more, all blend together into an opening book in a series that is much like the usual opening book in a fantasy series. It teaches the reader the rules and the situation, just as it clearly is ready to knock it all down. The whole book makes it clear that this is a world on the cusp of great change, the only question is whether that will be a positive or negative change. The book doesn’t quite give the reader enough for some moments to land, though the lack of context also makes some of its mysteries work a little better. The Briar King is just kind of a quintessential fantasy starter book. It won’t convert many new fans, but for fantasy readers it is a fine genre exercise. I guess I’ll track down the rest of the series before too long.

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Now Playing August 2019

Beaten

Crash Bandicoot 3 Warped – wrote about it here.

Spyro 3: Year of the Dragon – wrote about it here.

Paper Mario: Color Splash – wrote about it here.

Celeste – I think I lied and said I beat this before. I actually quit with something around half of the last stage to do. Celeste is great. It requires and inspires mastery. One of the things great about the game is how it slowly teaches the player to do things that look absolutely amazing or impossible at first glance. This is just a great game.

Ongoing

Judgment – Slow going, but I am starting to ease into this. I am having to kind of unlearn some things I picked up playing Yakuza games. The game looks and plays largely the same as its sister series, but there are enough differences to slow you down if you think you know how it works. The combat, for instance, is largely the same as it is in the Yakuza games, but protagonist Yagami doesn’t really fight anything like Kiryu. If you go in trying to use Kiryu tactics, the game will be much more difficult than it should be. I am just to the point where this game opens up and lets the player go their own way in the world. It feels so promising in the early going that I am hoping the meat of the game.

Persona Q2 – I made almost no progress on this last month. I am not ready to give it up, yet. The time I would normally use with my 3DS got filled up with Paper Mario on my WiiU. I will get back to this, but my complaints from the last few months still stand. This game really isn’t doing it for me. I was hoping for a farewell to Etrian Odyssey and probably a lot of Persona characters. Instead, I got a slog. I’ve had similar problems with other dungeon crawlers early on; maybe I will get to a moment where this one clicks.

Sonic Mania – This really should be in the beaten section than the ongoing, but for some reason I never found the time to get to the last few stages. It has been a long time since I’ve played a 2D Sonic the Hedgehog game, but this really feels right. I have always found them to be simultaneously somewhat sloppy feeling and continually compelling. The levels feel sprawling and labyrinthine, but it doesn’t really appear to matter when you are playing, so long as you can get from beginning to end. This game nails that feeling. The only downside I would point to so far is that it has too many bosses. Each stage in each zone ends with a boss of some kind. It is frustrating. I don’t remember many bosses from the Genesis games; they aren’t something I played Sonic for. I know they were there, but I only recall them at the end of zones. There are way too many bosses in this game. Still, it is excellent though about 11 zones or so. I should finish this up soon. At least my first playthough; there is a lot more to this game. I haven’t yet played as Tails or Knuckles, let alone got the DLC to play as Ray or Mighty. I don’t know how much of that I am going to do, but I am glad it is there for me to maybe do it.

Upcoming

Monster Hunter World: Iceborne – I am really itching to get back into Monster Hunter, so this couldn’t come at a better time. I might need to finish some things up in the base game, but I think I had it beaten. It seems like it has been a long time since I’ve hunted some monsters.

Final Fantasy VIII: Remaster – It has been a long time since I’ve played Final Fantasy 8. It isn’t one of my favorite games to play, but it is a game that meant a whole lot to me growing up. I’ll get into it more when I write about it, but it is one of the first games that I followed the development of. I plan to jump on the remaster and see how it feels 20 years on.

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse – I am working through the last few unbeaten WiiU games I have, so I can sadly unhook and retire one of the most underrated consoles ever made. Actually, I won’t be unhooking it, I need it to play a similar stack of unfinished Wii games that even I know I’ll never get to.

River City Girls – This looks delightful and I love Kunio/River City games. I will absolutely be jumping on this as soon as possible.

Yakuza 3 – Maybe. I am going to buy this on PS4. I am not going to do so until I beat Judgment. I really should get back to Final Fantasy 15 and Dragon Quest 11 before I buy any new PS4 games. I also have Ni No Kuni 2 and Uncharted 4 sitting unplayed on my shelf. I am likely to buy and play this.

Crash and Spyro 3

I was prepared to give Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped an hour or two, conclude that it was roughly the same as the previous two entries in the series and move on to Spyro 3: Year of the Dragon. I had already all but concluded that the PS1 Crash Bandicoot games just weren’t for me. I didn’t begrudge the people who do like them, but I didn’t consider them among the cream of the early 3D platforming crop. Honestly, I didn’t really find the first two games worth my time in 2019. I was only sticking with the game to keep up this gimmick of writing about Crash and Spyro in tandem. Then I started playing Warped.

I can’t articulate why or how, but this game just feels better than the previous two. It has all the hallmarks of the third game in a series on a console; the built up junk of repeated iterations trying to make something new without actually innovating. There is nothing I can point to and say that Crash Bandicoot 3 does better than 1 or 2. All I can say is that I really enjoyed playing it. It just feels like the game that all three of the games in the series should have been.

There are things in Crash 3 that should be the signs of an aging series. There are a lot of weird gimmick levels. Some with Coco on a jet ski, some with Coco riding a tiger, a few with Crash on a motorcycle, a few underwater levels. a level with Crash flying a biplane. With only 25 or 30 stages, having a full third of them being something other than the traditional stages should be a point against the game. But most of those stages are fun. They largely don’t completely change the game, they just put it in a different context. I hated the motorcycle races, but otherwise they were a lot of fun. That leaves a dozen or so regular stages. They are the same mix of fun and frustrating as before, though I encountered less of the frustration. The jumps still have that arc that I haven’t quite mastered. I still have a hard time judging distances going forward, though I learned to use the slide more than the spin as an offensive weapon in that context really lessened that problem.

It all just worked for me this time. There were some small frustrations, but I found Crash Bandicoot Warped to be a solid game. Especially considering its vintage. It almost makes me want to go back and give the first two another look. Almost.

While I went into Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped with little in the way of expectations, I went into Spyro: Year of the Dragon a little wary. I loved Spyro the Dragon, but Spyro 2 left me cold in the worst way. It wasn’t that the game was bad, but that it frustrated me in so many small ways that my memories of playing have curdled. It likely isn’t fair to the game, but I went into Spyro 3 scared that it would continue a downward slide. It is one thing to not like three straight games, it is another to love one and have the sequels disappoint. Luckily, Spyro: Year of the Dragon did not disappoint.

The game is not quite as good as the first, but Year of the Dragon was still a delight. It wisely gets rid of Spyro 2’s annoying upgrade system. Spyro has his abilities and those abilities are pretty static. For the most part, stages seem a little more simple, at least the Spyro sections. (I’ll have more to say about that clarification in a second.) Not every dragon’s egg, which are this game’s macguffin of choice, are hidden behind an elaborate set piece. Some are just hidden off to the sides of a stages, in well crafted nooks and crannies. For the most part, it plays just like the previous two Spyro games. You collect gems and find some other doodad.

There are different sections. Spyro meets a handful of allies on his quest and they are are playable at specific spots. They play close enough to Spyro that it is not completely jarring, and some of the sections actually add a fun dimension. The least enjoyable ones, aside from some of the weird one offs with the Yeti, are those featuring the monkey Agent 9 with a sort of proto-Ratchet and Clank style gameplay. Then there are the sections that kept me from 100% this game like I did with the first; the skateboard sections. Yes, I realize that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was popular, but these are out of place and frustrating. They show something that often crops up after a few games in a series.

Both of these games illustrate a problem that often happens with long running series; cruft builds up around the core gameplay and the fun little asides start to overwhelm the actual game. It often starts to appear in third entries, even good ones. Look at Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (And Knuckles). The game adds a lot of complementary ideas and extra playable characters. I choose that game as the example specifically because it shares something with both Crash 3 and Spyro 3; it is an excellent game. The accumulation of unnecessary stuff is there, but it has yet to really hamper the game. With Crash it is evident in all the vehicle levels. There are motorcycle races, jet skis obstacle courses, and bi-plane dogfights. They are not the game you came in expecting, but only the motorcycle stages are bad. In Spyro 3 it manifests itself as extra playable characters. Lots of sections of stages are there for Spyro’s new, and largely annoying for one reason or another, friends. There are some frustrating parts, but they are largely fine.

Both of these third entries show series treading water. They know they’ve hit on something successful and they do not seem interested in evolving that idea, instead the games merely iterate. The extra stuff is here to try to show growth without actually risking messing up a good thing by attempting to grow. The third Crash has softened me on that trilogy, and I genuinely enjoyed Spyro 3 almost as much as the first. Still, I am ready to be done with these series for a while.

Recap of the Titans 1

Season 2 Episode 1: Trigon

I am trying something new here. For the next twelve weeks, a new episode of Titans will be hitting the DCUniverse app. I am going to write a review of each one.

‘Trigon’ pick up where things left off almost a year ago. Rachel/Raven’s father, the demon Trigon, has shown up. Donna and Kory are stuck outside the farmhouse where this demon summoning is occurring. Inside, Raven and Gar are on the run from Dick. Dick has turned evil, thanks to the events in the hallucinatory finale last season. As Raven and Gar escape from the demonically controlled Dick, back-up arrives; Hawk and Dove have teamed up with Jason Todd and tracked the team down. Together with Kory and Donna they try to get into the farmhouse to help.

That turns out to be exactly what Trigon wanted. Each member of the team goes through the same thing Dick did; visions that get them to give in to their dark side. There are some interesting ways that happens here. Donna faces the death of her father, Kori finishing her mission to stop Raven from summoning Trigon, etc. It is a good look at characters who maybe didn’t quite get the focus that some of the others did in the last season. It ends with everyone, save Gar, turned to the demonic side. The now evil team then assaults Gar, until he can snap Raven out of her evil trance. Then Raven uses her powers to do the same for Dick. While this was going on, Trigon has assumed his true demon form and killed Raven’s mother. Raven confronts him and pretty summarily defeats him. With Trigon gone, the team goes back to normal.

Then the show moves into wrap up; the various characters go their separate ways. Dick has a little heart to heart with Bruce Wayne and decides to officially bring the Titans back, with Jason, Raven and Gar sticking around to be on the team. Donna, Hawk and Dove go back to their lives, while Kori heads to her home planet.  Meanwhile, Deathstroke the Terminator has heard the Titans are back and decides to come out of retirement to take them on.

There is no getting around this: this episode is not really the first of a new season, it is the finale of last season. I don’t know why DC decided to hold it back for this season; I would guess there were some reshoots at the end once they knew the show was coming back for a second season.  Adding in the bit with Bruce and the final reveal seem like late additions. That makes it hard to dig into, though, because it has been a year since the set ups that this episode pays off.  It took me a while to remember exactly how things left off, especially with characters like Hawk and Dove. Once the show finishes with the Trigon plot, which is fairly well executed horror themed superhero stuff, it does get into setting up the coming season. At least, I hope that is what it was doing. The team goes their separate ways, but other than Hawk and Dove I find it hard to believe they won’t all be back. And I would bet against Hawk and Dove coming back.

While the immediate problem has been solved, the larger problems these damaged teens and no longer teens have issues to sort out. Dick appears to have wrestled with his dark side, for now, and Raven is ready to do something other than run from her devil daddy. The big revelation of this episode is Slade Wilson, i.e. Deathstroke. In the comics, he makes for a much more interesting villain than Trigon, who has never been all that interesting.  Deathstroke manages to be both obviously evil, he is an assassin who spends a lot of his time trying to kill teenagers, but also to have some depth. With Deathstroke working to tear this nascent team apart, I am sure things will get interesting fast.

The other thing that needs to be addressed with the show is the darkness that seemed to kind of doom the show’s reception last year.  A lot of people seem to have written it off from the first trailer, which is really doing what is a very good show a disservice.  There is darkness in this show, but it has only rarely felt out of place. There is darkness inherent is so many of these characters. The first season, and this episode, primarily focused on Raven and Dick. Raven’s story is straight up dark; she is the child of a literal demon. Fighting her demonic heritage is a big part of her character. Dick is a dark character if you really look at it. His parents were murdered by the mob and he was taken in by a billionaire who suffered a similar tragedy and decided to take revenge on the very concept of crime. He has not lead a normal life, or on free of darkness. Now, comic book Dick Grayson is usually notable for how bright a character he is, especially in the context of Batman characters. This show, at least so far, has gone a different direction, but not one that is unheard of. That said, this episode feels like it purged a lot of the remaining overt darkness. I don’t expect the show to be lightness from here on, but I expect the buoyancy that shined in the middle episodes of last season to take over a little more.

That is all for this week, but I am really ready for the actual start of the new season next week.

Marvel Netflix

The Netflix Marvel team up started with such high hopes and genuine success that the sorry state it ended up in as it winds down with Jessica Jones’ third season is really disappointing. Well, Jessica Jones S3 is not all that disappointing; it is a good deal better than the kind of miserable second season and a solid, if still flawed, grace note to end this whole endeavor. But the project ends up feeling kind of disappointing.

Netflix’s Marvel partnership started strong with Daredevil, but the problems that would hamper everything going forward were already present. It was too long, with 13 hour long episodes to tell a story that did not need to be anywhere near that long. It was also pretty dour, fitting for that season of that show but still true. These loosely connected shows, though, exhibited an uncanny ability to lean into their flaws. It seemed like anything that was a problem in a previous show would be doubled down on in the next show or season. That is how we got to the nadir with the first season of Iron Fist, a good four or five hours of story spread thinly across thirteen, done with seriousness and grimness entirely unfitting for a show about a man who grew up in a city of magical martial artists and can conjure mystical powers in his fist. I have no idea what the streaming numbers look like, but I know my interest was already well and truly waning at that point. I faded a bit more with each season down the stretch, though I would rate Jessica Jones season 1 a little better than Daredevil’s first, and eventually I kind of lost interest in each show. I hoped Iron Fist would be the one to pull me back. Of the four characters originally chosen for this Defenders project, he is the only one that is the most consistently fun in the comics. Daredevil is almost never fun. Jessica Jones can be fun, but her stories tend to be more serious noir detective stories. Luke Cage is kind of in the middle; he can be tremendously fun, especially when teaming up with Iron Fist, but also lends himself to serious work.

One thing all of these shows, save Daredevil, consistently failed to do was reflect what made their comics entertaining. The shows all seemed to shy from their comic roots. They pulled the characters and set ups, as well as bits of plots and stories, but left everything else behind. This was especially the relationships between the characters. I’ll be honest, seeing those develop was one of the things I was most interested in and it never happened. I am sure there are good, production related reasons for that, but it doesn’t make it any less disappointing. I’d rather have had one season of Danny and Luke teaming up in Heroes for Hire than both shows’ season 2s. The fact that the two characters, most famous for teaming up with each other, barely interacted outside of Defenders, was a mistake and a disappointment. It is why seeing Luke Cage and Jessica Jones in Jessica Jones season one dissipate was disappointing. It is not that that is the only story about them that matters, but that it is the story I most wanted to see. The shows also did that in format. They all wanted to be important, “prestige” television, even when that was not the best fit for the characters. Jessica Jones is a private investigator, the fact that the show couldn’t find things to fill the dead space in seasons was sheer ineptitude. They could have taken some cues from mysteries or procedurals, but those shows aren’t “prestige” so that was not the route taken. It is also true with costuming. Daredevil had a Daredevil costume, but the other shows ran as far away as they could from their comic looks. That sort of mocking the comics bullshit worked with X-Men in 1999, but twenty years later it is pretty sorry. If you are going to make a show about Hellcat, have her dress like Hellcat. Iron Fist is a silly character, give him a silly costume.

Jessica Jones was the best series of the group. I had the best overall season, and its sophomore effort was not quite the unmitigated disaster that Daredevil season two was. Even that show had a problem with spinning its wheels with one interminable season long plot every time out. The biggest problem with all of the Marvel Netflix shows is that they were just good enough to keep me watching. There was always a scene, or a story or a performance that made me want to see more, even though I rarely walked away from a show actually enjoying it. And they started to figure things out at the end. The two shows that got season 3s improved from their season 2s. Iron Fist Season 2 was shortened. Maybe they were slowly righting the ship.

Now, the Marvel Netflix partnership is over. Most new Marvel shows are going to be on Disney+, and actually tied to the MCU, unlike the unfulfilled promise of the Netflix shows. Maybe they will be good, maybe not. Marvel also still has some other outlier TV shows going on some networks. Hulu’s Runaways, a show whose first season disappointed me and I have yet to get to the second, is still ongoing. There is also a Cloak and Dagger show that I think is still running. The interesting, but flawed, The Gifted has ended, as has the even more interesting Legion, which with Fox being bought by Disney opens up the X-Men for a completely fresh start. TV networks seem determined to find the absolute maximum amount of superhero content that can be created and they don’t seem to think they’ve reached it yet. Continue reading

Paper Mario Color Splash

Nearly three years ago, my brother’s got me Paper Mario Color Splash for Christmas. While I had been greatly anticipating the game, for some reason the game pretty much immediately fell on the back burner. For some reason, I got the notion to finally give a play a few weeks ago. It turns out that Color Splash, like most of Nintendo’s WiiU output is an excellent game.

Color Splash is built in the same mold as its predecessor, Sticker Star for DS. That surely was a big disappointment for the people who hated Sticker Star, but Color Splash truly refines what that game did and feels like the culmination of this conception of Paper Mario. Like Thousand Year Door took the original Paper Mario and perfected it, Color Splash perfects the enjoyable but flawed Sticker Star. Super Paper Mario was perfect the first time out. (No, I haven’t played the game in nearly a decade, but I am sure my memory of it is perfect.) There are no companions and Mario’s abilities are still represented by a randomly drawn deck. Here they are cards instead of stickers, but the concept is generally the same. Mario can only do what he has the cards to do. The game has also been almost completely lost its RPG elements. There are almost no numbers to be seen, no levels or experience. Mario still does have HP, but that is about it.

Mario can carry up to 100 cards and use as many as four a turn. Cards are plentiful, meaning there is rarely any reason to horde them. Sure, you might want to make judicious decisions when using them, using regular jumps to take out weak enemies like Koopa Troopers and saving the huge jump and five jump cards for bosses, but nothing sticks in the inventory for long. The game is divided into levels and each one has a gimmick of some sort. Some of these play into the real world looking items that are in the paper world, others just have a neat hook.

Where it really shines, especially in comparison to Sticker Star, is in the story and characters. The main complaint with Sticker Star is still there in Color Splash; the game’s characters consists almost entirely of Toads. Bowser is almost completely absent, Peach makes only a slightly larger appearance. It is mostly Mario and Huey, a paint bucket, messing around with Toads and Shyguys. Still, the game manages to use the interchangeable facelessness of the Toads to its advantage this time. There are some with personality, like a feisty yet fearful ship captain, but mostly they are just folk, letting the events of the game happen to them. Still, they are worked in perfectly in every environment. They panic and are resigned. They try to help, but are generally ineffectual. Like they do with the eternal second brother Luigi, this time Nintendo has turned that into wonderful comedy. The highlight of the game is a big train rescue. Lemmy of the Koopalings has hijacked a train and Mario has to defeat him to gain a Paint Star. (More on those in a second.) Mario makes his way through the train, saving Toads from various torments at the hands of enemies. Then he reaches a peaceful train car. There, with the sun setting in the background, Mario and a Shyguy have a philosophical discussion. Then you go on. It is a brief aside that manages to be both humorous and thoughtful at the same time; it is great. The game is filled with moments like that.

About those Paint Stars: the big gimmick of Color Splash is that Bowser and his army are sucking the color out of the Paper World. So Mario gets help from a sentient paint can named Huey and sets about restoring the Paint Stars that protect the worlds paint and filling in the whited out parts of the world. It is the perfect gimmick for Paper Mario. It also works well with the entirely papercrafted world of game.

Like nearly all Mario RPGs, Color Splash goes on a bit too long. It is too easy and there are some tedious levels. But it looks amazing and is a great time for the bulk of its run time. There aren’t too many games left on the WiiU that I haven’t played. A part of me wants to argue for the underrated greatness of the WiiU, but that feels like a completely lost cause at this point. Especially since most of the best WiiU games have migrated to other systems. And I am sure that most of the rest will at some point. Maybe not Wonderful 101, which is an all time classic that needs more love. I don’t have the time or energy for this cause. If this is the game that is my farewell to the WiiU, I am glad I sent it off with a great game. I do still have Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, so I do have that still to look forward to.

Angel Has Fallen

A person can derive a lot of enjoyment out of the right kind of bad movie. Angel Has Fallen, while plenty bad, is not that kind of bad movie. It is a mostly competent action movie that somehow manages to be really dumb without being fun.

This is the third entry in the, I don’t know, Fallen series, after Olympus Has Fallen and London Has Fallen. None of them are good. Angel Has Fallen is obvious and completely uninteresting. Mike Banning, Gerard Butler with his trademark shockingly appealing gruff anti-charm, is an aging secret service agent. While he still has incredible agent skills, he is feeling the effects of his dangerous life. He is popping pain pills and suffering from insomnia. This never matters in the plot. He meets up with an old war buddy who went private contractor and his training facility and agrees to put in a good word for him with secret service training. Especially because Banning is up to be the new director. While guarding the President while he is fishing, a drone attack kills everyone at the scene, except for the President and Banning.

Evidence shows that Banning is responsible. The president is in a coma, so he can’t tell how Banning saved his life during the attack. Banning ends up on the run, trying to find out who set him up and who tried to kill the president and eventually stop that person from finishing the job.

You can tell almost exactly how this will play out from the opening minutes. There is never any doubt who the bad guys are. (Hint: it is the old army buddy and the VP.) What you are left with are some moderately entertaining action scenes, some stupid mystery unraveling and themes that are muddled or non-existent.

The Banning is getting too old for this is undercut by his being the best at everything all the time. His struggles go away completely when it is time for the plot to shift into high gear. Who has time for migraines and insomnia when you have to go on the run from the US military. You meet Banning’s dad, who I guess is supposed to be the worst case for what Banning might become, but the movie doesn’t do more than suggest that. The villains motives change over the course of the movie. The FBI characters are a complete waste. The movie is just a bunch of things not done particularly well.

Angel Has Fallen is not a movie to hate; it is hard to summon enough feeling to actually hate it. I can’t imagine too many people actually like it, either. The best case scenario for this movie would be so bad it’s good, but it’s just kind of bad. The plot makes some observations about the use of PMCs that Metal Gear Solid made more than a decade ago, with more intelligence and more nuance. And I wouldn’t say much about Metal Gear Solid is nuanced. This movie isn’t worth anyone’s time.

**

Ready or Not

Ready or Not is not a subtle movie. At one point its protagonist flat out states a succinct version of the movie’s theme: “Fucking rich people.” That theme is on display pretty obviously throughout the movie. It is gory and funny and fun.

The movie opens with Grace (Samara Weaving) and Alex (Mark O’Brien) preparing for their wedding. The wedding is taking place on Alex’s family, the Le Domas’s, estate. Grace is an orphan, so while she is nervous, she is eager to be part of a family. The family is a little strange, but happy to have her is she is bringing Alex back, as he had been estranged for some years. After the wedding, Grace learns about a strange family tradition. On the wedding night, the person marrying into the family draws a card and they play a game. It is weird, but since the family made their fortune with board games, it is not that crazy. Unfortunately, Grace draws the hide and seek card. The family believes that they must hunt and kill any person who draws the hide and seek card. The rest of the movie is Grace attempting to evade her new in laws throughout their mansion.

The whole thing becomes a big class conflict. Along with the come from nothing Grace, there are a handful of household servants. The family are all third and fourth generation wealth. They are fortunately not especially talented or parcticed at murder. They are all awful in their own way. Alex’s older brother is a drunk, his wife is a gold digger. Their father is a fail-son patriarch. Their aunt is the bitter widow of the last time this game was played. The daughter is a drugged out wreck and her husband is callous and thoughtless. The hardest one to get a read on is Alex’ mother, Becky, played by Andie MacDowell. She is the only competent member of the family, but she seems somehow both reluctant and resolute.

They come after her with ancient weaponry that they don’t really have an idea how to use. Thanks to Alex’s working on Grace’s behalf, she manages to evade her captors. The movie does a great job of showing Grace’s bravery and determination, which is not undermined by the Le Domas’s incompetence. They have all the power, but no idea how to do anything. Most of Grace’s problems come from her run ins with the butler and the children.

While Grace is the only target of the hunt, there are significantly more casualties. As revealed by the trailers, the maids have a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is also gory. Grace gets quite injured; shot and cut and generally abused. A bullet hole through the hand is put to a some gruesome use.

The movie has more than gore and thrills going for it. It is also quite clever. The dialogue is pretty great and almost all of the jokes land. The disinterest or over-eagerness of various family members play off each other perfectly. The cast is excellent. Samara Weaving is a star, and MacDowell and Adam Brody are likewise terrific. It is definitely some B-movie fun, but as a bit of late summer fun it is hard to beat

****

What I Read July 2019

I burned through a couple of books to start the month, then got stuck in the cycle I’ve been in all summer: starting books only to lose interest about a quarter of the way through. At some point I am going to finish a deluge of books, but it isn’t going to be in August.

The Elf Queen of Shannara

Terry Brooks

The Heritage of Shannara series has not held up anywhere near as well as I’d hoped it would. I recalled really liking this one, but it feels incredibly rushed on a reread. You can’t complain about Brooks being slow paced. This starts with Wren Ohmsford taking up her quest to find the missing Elves. After some misadventures, she finally finds a lead in Tiger Ty, a member of the tribe of elves that rides around on giant birds. He leads her to the deadly island where the elves have moved and she has to get them to safety before the volcano on this island erupts. With the elves she learns both their history and her own and what is required to bring them back to the Four Lands.

This book feels like it was almost completely made up of storytelling shortcuts. The adventure just keeps going even as it adds characters and concepts, so there is no nuance to any of it. Everyone is exactly what they appear to be. Characters are introduced to play roles and there is nothing more to them. There is some excellent action scenes here, and the plot sounds a lot more interesting than it seems when reading it. My disappointment is mostly from wanting something different from this movie than I wanted.

The Talismans of Shannara

Terry Brooks

I have maybe been too hard on this series. This fourth book wraps things up nicely; The Heritage of Shannara is a largely okay series of adventures. I admire the structure of the series. Instead of following the usual linear narrative, this book cordons off its stories. The first book introduces its three sets of heroes, and mostly tells the story of brothers Par and Coll Ohmsford. Instead of continuing their story in the second book, it switches to Walker Boh for his mostly unrelated adventure. The third book then followed Wren on her adventure. Then here is the final book to wrap it all up, and finish the story of Par and Coll. There is a chapter or two in each book to check in on some of the other characters, and a few characters make appearances in the others’ stories, but it mostly tells three unrelated stories that all tie together in a climactic fourth book.

I like that structure. I like at least parts of the plots of each book. I just don’t think Terry Brooks’ writing is for me anymore. Instead of going back and revisit and finish the entire Shannara series, I think I might just box up what I have and put them away. It feels better to leave my memories where they are.

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spied Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb

Sam Kean

This book was really interesting. It deals with nuclear espionage during WWII. Because near the start of WWII the Allies were convinced that not only was Germany working on an atom bomb, but that they were close to discovering one. So while the Manhattan Project geared up, a small group of spies went to great lengths to stop the Nazis.

There is a lot of understandable desperation on display; stuff like filling planes with explosives and flying them into enemy encampments where nuclear experiments were thought to be occurring. They ran several missions into Norway to stop the production of heavy water used in Nazi experiments, only for those efforts to turn into a series of distastrous misadventures. There are a lot of interesting characters, like the Joliot-Curie’s, who seemed to keep missing out on big scientific discoveries and who worked in France to help delay the Nazis and Moe Berg, a MLB catcher turned would be assassin. What is most striking is just how haphazard and desperate all of these efforts were. It is hard to judge how effective anything was. It is clear that the Nazis never really got all that close to producing a bomb, but whether that was due to espionage and sabotage or just due to their own failures. Still, this book makes gives an enthralling look at a part of WWII that is rarely discussed.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

I am way too old to have memories of Dora the Explorer, but I am unfortunately old enough to have memories of babysitting children who are now teenagers who likely have fond memories of Dora the Explorer. For some reason, I found myself wandering into the theater to watch the live action adaptation of a cartoon for toddlers. I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. It is still a movie for kids, this time more for the pre-teen set, kids that still have that naivety of youth and are anticipating/dreading high school. This move is just about perfect for them; both thoroughly fun and entertaining and entirely wholesome.

The first place this movie shines is with its entirely overqualified cast. Saving the kids for a second, this is a movie with spots for Michael Pena, Eva Longoria, Benecio Del Toro and Danny Trejo. These adults all have small roles, but they make the most of their short time. The most meaningful presences there are Pena and Longoria, who play Dora’s parents with a just the right amount of encouragement and concern. Dora, played by Isabella Moner, is the engine that drives this movie. She is perpetually upbeat, but not stupid. The movie does a great job of showing her competence in the jungle before uprooting her for the city and having her look like a doof. Then, it flips it again to put her back in the jungle. The other kids, Diego and two new characters (I guess, I’m not a Dora expert) are pretty fun. Diego is Dora after having the exuberance sanded off by years with the more cynical city folks. Randy is a somewhat dorky everyman, who knows the tropes of the adventure stories Dora riffs on. And Sammy is the classic alpha smart girl, who is simultaneously jealous, dismissive and competitive with Dora. It isn’t anything new or groundbreaking, but it is fun. Finally, there is Eugenio Derbez, who guides/is guided by Dora through the middle portion of the movie. He is not quite incompetent but also not quite adept, and mostly serves as the butt of jokes for the kids.

Some of the most fun parts of Dora are how the movie adapts the specific hallmarks of the show into this live action format. There is a big change of perspective scene near the end that plays with this, but there are also moments throughout that do similar things. Dora’s talking to the camera asking 3 year olds to count to 4 is now her talking to her audience (it is unclear if she actually has one) for youtube videos she is making. Boots the monkey is just a monkey, though he is a horrible CGI creation rather than an actual monkey. Inexplicably, Swiper is a talking CGI fox who just so happens to be working for the bad guys. It is weird, but it somehow works.

The plot is just complex enough. To start with, Dora’s parents are sending her to live with her cousin in civilization after she grew up in the jungle with them, a pair of college educated archaeologist. This is both for her development and because they think they found a lost city and can’t take her with them. So the first act has Dora trying to adapt to live in the big city. Then she loses contact with her parents, and is kidnapped during a trip to the museum. Along with her is her group of not quite friends. From there, they try to find Dora’s parents, escape the dangerous jungle and find the lost city. It nails that Indiana Jones like personal bickering while dealing with external threats tone perfectly. It is really just a fun adventure.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is not going to knock anyone’s socks off. It is a perfectly good movie, especially for adults with kids the age of the intended audience of this movie. It is entertaining enough that they will not be bored and good enough that the kids will hopefully be enthralled. There is something to say about selling nostalgia to progressively younger movie watchers, as usually they are selling the entertainment of youth back to adults, here they are selling memories of babyhood viewing to pre-teens, but I am not the one to talk about that.

***1/2