Fighting With My Family

I am not the world’s biggest wrestling fan. I’m not much of a fan of wrestling at all, to be honest. I am conversant in the subject, but other than a few months in 2001 or so, I’ve never really watched or cared about wrestling. I get the appeal, but it was never something that stuck with me. While Fighting With My Family is a wrestling movie, and at times takes the viewers knowledge of wrestling a little bit for granted, it is not a movie that requires the viewer to be a wrestling fan. This is a pretty well executed sports biopic, wherein the sport just happens to be wrestling. Where is truly succeeds is not in the fighting from the title, but the family.

Fighting With My Family tells the story of WWE Champion Paige, real name Saraya or just Raya, and how she came to win the title, focusing on her relationship with her family, especially on her relationship with her brother Zac. It opens with the two of them fighting, only for their parents not breaking up the fight, but instructing them on how to fight better. The two of them grow up participating in their parent’s regional wrestling association. They also train neighborhood kids who want to be wrestlers. When they get invited to WWE tryouts, it is Raya who goes on, while Zak is not chosen. So the newly christened Paige goes to Florida to train and join the WWE’s developmental league NXT, while Zak stays home and stews in his perceived failure. The two both struggle with how to move on from this.

The movie is directed by Steven Merchant, who you might know from his work on The Office or Extras or playing Caliban in Logan. You can feel his touch in the films comedic moments. The comedy is what really makes this worth watching. The world of wrestling is a slightly unreal place, even when you go behind the scenes and look at the real people behind it. There is a circus atmosphere to it. Playing it completely straight would be a disaster, but Merchant leans into the ridiculousness, without ever making the wrestling itself seem like the ridiculous part. It helps that the cast is rock solid, which is not an intention reference to The Rock, who has what is essentially an extended cameo in this movie. Florence Pugh plays Paige with equal parts strength and vulnerability. Jack Lowden (Dunkirk) plays Zak and his desperation to succeed is palpable. The parents are Nick Frost, who is delightfully chummy, and Lena Headey who seems to be having fun as well. The last big name is Vince Vaughn, who plays the man heading up NXT and gives his usual glib charm to the tough training coach.

The movie doesn’t shy away from the Knight family’s fairly low class status; they are outsiders even in their hometown. They struggle with money and the law. But it also shows them as a loving family and how they work to help each other and the neighbors. Zak’s training with the local youngsters keeps them out of trouble and their parent’s really seem to want what is best for their kids.

Fighting With My Family is a perfectly enjoyable movie; it isn’t really going to surprise anyone or make any top ten lists, but it is a decent little comic drama that is well worth seeing.

***1/2

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What I Watched

Movies
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxysee this post.  I love this movie. Lots of favorites here; Sam Rockwell, Mos Def, Martin Freeman. *****

The Salvation – After watching Polar, Netflix recommended this other Mads Mikkelsen movie. It is a Western about a recent immigrant. After he settles in the west, he sends for his wife and son. When they arrive, they are quickly murdered. So Mikkelson’s Jon sets out for revenge, but then the brother of the murderer seeks his own revenge, setting off a destructive cycle. It’s nothing special, but it’s okay. ***

Ant-Man and The Wasp – I still enjoyed this a lot. Charming and fun, if inconsequential.****

Velvet Buzzsaw – I appreciate that this is a movie for somebody. That somebody is not me. This is a horror movie about the modern art world. It doesn’t appear to have much to say about art and it is not particularly scary (it is not scary enough that I watched it) but it is at least interesting. ***

Polar – This is some kind of weird mix of John Wick and Suicide Squad. I can’t fault anyone involved, least of all Mads Mikkelsen, but this movie is mostly not good. It is kind of entertaining in a wild and sort of awful way. Honestly, if it sounds at all interesting give it a try. I don’t think it’s good, but I had a decent time watching it. **1/2

High Flying Bird – Steven Soderbergh directed this movie about a fictional NBA lockout, with Andre Holland starring as an agent who manipulates things in an attempt to end the lockout. It is pretty great, with human characters and understandable viewpoints. It is a great sports movie that actually features very little of its sport. *****

Close – Noomi Rapace stars in a tight little action thriller. Rapace is a bodyguard, hired to protect a teenage girl. She saves the girl from an attempt on her life, but they can’t tell if it came from unknown enemies or from her own step-mother, with whom they have a fractious relationship. It is solid, if unspectacular. ***1/2

Alita: Battle Angelread review here. ***

Hot Fuzz – This movie is an absolute favorite, and that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon. I can watch this movie forever. *****

The Breaker Upperers – I might be being fooled by New Zealand accents, but this is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a long time. It is two women who run a business breaking up couples for a fee. For various reasons, they have to reexamine their business model. It is great. ****

Paddleton – This is an touching and occasionally amusing comedy/drama starring Ray Romano and Mark Duplass. The two play friends and neighbors. Duplass’s character gets diagnosed with cancer and Romano helps him navigate the end of his life. It is very much a downer, but it is well made and intermittently amusing. ***1/2

TV

The ABC Murders – There is a lot here to like in the adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Poirot mystery. They change somethings, in the backstory as much in the actual mystery, that seemed like a strange choice, but it is still really well made. John Malkovich is great as Poirot and I am starting to really like it when Rupert Grint shows up in things. It’s good, especially if you are not a Christie purist.

Russian Doll – Another show I want to really write about, but just don’t have the time. This is a Groundhog day type of story that goes in some interesting directions. It is just about a perfect show.

Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes – Its fine. There are better true crime series. The most interesting thing was hearing all the men talk about how irresistible Bundy was to woman and hearing all the women talk about how creepy he was if you spent more than ten minutes with him.

Black Earth Rising – I don’t know. There is a lot to like about this mini-series. The performances of John Goodman and Michaela Coel. I am generally interested in the subject matter of International criminal justice. This show just kind of goes too wide at times, a little melodramatic in ways that doesn’t seem to suit the show. Still, it does a lot well. It focuses a lot on the effects of colonialism and how even well intentioned attempts to counteract them only work to perpetuate the problems. But the show is also just kind of disappointingly all over the place, tonally.

You – I don’t think this show is for me. You follows the worlds biggest creep as he creeps on the object of his infatuation. The show does its best to keep the viewer at least partially on the side of protagonist/psychopath Joe, but I couldn’t forget the crazy enough to buy into anything else. I guess I am little too old for the social media aspect to resonate either. I’m on twitter, but I don’t share life details with people I’d avoid on the street. (to paraphrase Shawn Spencer of Psych)

Hilda – This was recommended to me several times, but it took me a while to get through it. That is mostly because it is pitched at a slightly younger audience than I am used to. However, the further you get into this show, the more its depth and heart show through. It is a fun mix of a modern world with a whole bunch of fantastic and mythological creatures. Hilda is amazingly empathetic towards whatever creature has shown up in any given week. The show’s dynamic doesn’t quite click until she makes friends with Frida and David. Adding those two characters gives Hilda consistent counterpoints to bounce off of, and really shows how she is special. The whole show is permeated with this sense of wonder that is utterly delightful. It is a great show.

One Day at a Time S3 – Another solid outing for this Netflix critical darling. This season digs deeper into its characters, while never losing that classic sitcom format. Previously, I’ve that format restrictive, but as with classic sitcoms, it gets better the longer the show goes on. Sure, eventually it will hit a tipping point where the quality of the writing, mostly due to having to find more stories to squeeze out of the set up, starts to go down, but by then the viewer is so comfortable with the characters and setting that it still feels like a warm blanket. One Day at a Time is hitting that warm blanket stage.

Big Mouth S1&2 – This falls into a similar category as Sex Education from earlier this year. It is a well made show, frequently really funny. It is a show providing good information to people who no longer need it. I don’t know how much it would actually appeal to kids the age of those on the show. I like all the people involved and frequently really like the show, but my reaction is more of a shrug and it’s fine.

The Umbrella Academy – Netflix is moving on from Marvel, but they are staying the superhero business. The first season of The Umbrella Academy is maybe better than any of Netflix’s Marvel shows. I kind of want to write a long blog post about his show, instead of a tiny review, but for now I’ll just say a few things. First, plotting is not this shows strong point. It does great stuff with setting and character, but the plot is chaos. That is partly the point; this dysfunctional family can’t even get things together to face the apocalypse, but sometimes you can lose track of each episode as it goes. Again, the character work is great. You really get where nearly every character is coming from, though I think it is impossible not to side with some over others. It is a delightful sort of weird. The most part most indicative of the overall tone is in the first episode, when all of the siblings dance separately to “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It is almost too on the nose in a perfect way. This is a really good show.

Lorena – A solid docu-series that recontextualizes the Lorena Bobbitt story from the 90’s. It does a really good job of showing how a salacious story like this gets distorted in popular culture. At the time everything was focused on John Bobbitt and his version of the story, and Lorena was largely dismissed as a crazy woman. This series takes a fresh look at the story, and goes further, looking at what has happened since, and creates a clearer look at the incident, which shows Lorena as more of a victim. It also shows how genuinely gross people like Howard Stern, Geraldo Rivera, and Alan Dershowitz were in dealing with this story.

Now Playing February 2019

Beaten

Celeste – Celeste is just about a perfect game. It is one part a meditation on depression, one part maso-core platformer. It does an amazing job of teaching its mechanics in each stage, slowly letting the player learn them in a safe environment before requiring performance in a treacherous setting. It is set up to kill the player a lot, but also to make the punishment for each death minimal. Instead of a death setting you back, it more affects your ‘score’ of deaths in each section. I’m sure someone who spent more time thinking about it than I did can think of a way the story interacts with the mechanics; instead I just found it to be a heartfelt take on dealing with depression. What a great game.

Ongoing

Etrian Odyssey Nexus – I think I am nearing the end of this. It is already the largest Etrian Odyssey game I’ve ever played; I am on something like the 30th dungeon floor. I pretty quickly settled into a solid team; I burn through resources like crazy and am super fragile, but they do some damage. While I apparently have a goldfish memory when it comes to these games, this does appear to be a very heartfelt greatest hits collection of all of the games in the series. I’m at the point where I kind of just want the game to end, but knowing this is the last entry in the series on the greater DS family of consoles, I also kind of never want the game to end.

Dragon Quest XI – slow progress, but some progress. I am still loving this game, I am just not loving the amount of time I have to play it.

Beyond Good and Evil – This is a fun club entry and a game I haven’t played in close to fifteen years. The first two hours reminded me why I liked it so much. This is a really fun world. The game feels like an evolutionary link between Ocarina of Time and Assassin’s Creed. I might have to do a longer write up when I finish this.

 

Upcoming

Shin Megami Tensei – Either Soul Hackers or 4: Apocalypse. I am in the mood for some Shin Megami Tensei, and I have these two unfinished 3DS games.

Final Fantasy XV – As soon as I finish Dragon Quest XI, I am going to put some serious time into this. Spring break is coming up and I am going to relax a lot.

Epic Mickey – Copy and paste from last month.

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King

For Christmas, I was given Dragon Quest XI for PS4. Playing it for a couple of hours reminded me of just how much I like Dragon Quest. It also reminded me that I didn’t finish Dragon Quest VII: Journey of the Cursed King when it was released for the 3DS a couple of years ago. So while I waited for Etrian Odyssey Nexus to be released, I dug out my copy to jam in my 3DS and finish off the playthrough I started back then.

Dragon Quest VIII makes an interesting counterpart to Dragon Quest XI because they are so similar. Even in a series known for sticking to a formula, these two games are nearly identical. They are both visually impressive, back to basics games. Both of them are games if not designed, at least positioned for success in the West for what is largely a Japanese series. With the caveat that I’m only about a third of the way through Dragon Quest 11, they are both two of my favorite games in the series.*

Dragon Quest’s reputation for staidness is a little overblown; it does occasionally tinker with the formula. VI and VII has some narrative innovation, with a job system that didn’t become available until too long into the game and some other strange pacing choices. Immediately following 8 was Dragon Quest 9’s Monster Hunter influenced take on the series, with its multiplayer stuff. Dragon Quest 8 was the only “normal” Dragon Quest game for about a decade on either side of it. Really though, the game is stripped almost bare of mechanics and characters, resting its accomplishments primarily on the purity of its vision.

That works for the game. There is a little bit of character customization, letting the player choose which of a handful of weapons each character can use. However, the party capped at 4 characters in the initial release. The 3DS added two newcomers, one who felt like she could have been on the team originally and one oddball. Still, they both join up very late in the proceedings and are mostly there for late and post-game shenanigans. The limited party with limited options lets the game be very specific with challenges. There aren’t a lot of ways to break the game, to do things out of sequence or blow up the difficulty curve. That is a mark against the game with many people, I know. I do enjoy games like Final Fantasy Tactics, which just lets the player go nuts and tear it apart, or Breath of the Wild, which encourages the player to do things their own way. However, I am not one to dock a game for carefully calibrating the experience. There are no shortcuts and few tricks to getting through Dragon Quest VIII, you play at the games pace.

It works because that pace is good. The game starts with a fairly simple quest: King Trode, Princess Medea, and their entire kingdom have been cursed by the evil jester Dhoulmagus. The protagonist is the one lowly guardsman who escaped the curse, and now leads the quest to break the curse. At the start they are joined by Yangus, a burly thief with a heart of gold. Soon they are joined by the fiery Jessica, whose life has also been overturned by Dhoulmagus, and cool playboy Angelo, who has been cast out of his religious order. It is not a story in which characters change a whole lot. The protagonist is silent cipher, with the player having some ability to shape his personality. Yangus has already went straight by the time the game starts, and is always Eight’s, as the protagonist is called, right hand man, with insider knowledge of most of the lowlifes they run into. Angelo is always more than he seems, and most of his secrets are full revealed by the time he joins. Jessica maybe gets the most growth of the party, as she learns her potential after being stifled most of her life. It is a fun group, with different perspectives and reactions to everything the party runs into. But it is also a limited group; you pretty well know how each of them are going to react to anything by the midway point.

The game tailors the challenges around that limited party. Early on it knows that the player has only Yangus’s power and Eight’s all around qualities; that is a time for simple strategies as the player learns the game. Then it adds Jessica the mage, and gives her opportunities to shine. Finally, you get Angelo the healer, so the game can really take the gloves off and come at the player. Your options are always limited, but there are enough things to consider when fighting bosses. It just all works wonderfully. The new additions to the 3DS version add some wrinkles near the end, but that is too late to really change things.

The story, building off the simple quest, is Dragon Quest’s traditional vignettes, with each area telling a complete story that is also a piece of the larger story. That is the best thing the series has going for it; very few games work like that and even fewer do it as well as Dragon Quest. One detail I love is that there is a low key mystery through the game about how the protagonist avoided the curse that is never dealt with before the post-game. No other game would leave that detail for post-credits revelations. Also, the game is gorgeous. The visuals are slightly downgraded on 3DS, but they still create a wonderful cartoon world.

So far, everything Dragon Quest VIII does well, Dragon Quest XI does too. It is structured the same way, but bigger. The world is bigger and better looking. The party is more diverse and there are more options for each character. It still feels the same, though. After a decade of detours, Dragon Quest XI is the game the finally follows up on the game that really got me into the series. With it Western success, Dragon Quest XI feels like the game that Dragon Quest VIII always wanted to be. And really, mostly was.

*For the record: V, IV, VIII, (XI pending completion), IX, I, III, VI, VII, II

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Comparative Study

On a whim, I rewatched The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie on Netflix a couple of weeks ago. Afterwards, a bout of curiosity led me to look up the movie on wikipedia, which took me down a rabbit hole that left me shocked to discover that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not a particularly well regarded movie. I was foolish enough to think it would be loved simply because it is great. Instead, it seems stuck in that that weird gray zone where fans of the previous versions don’t like it because it changed some things and non-fans don’t like it for a combination of thinking they are missing too much for not being familiar with the radio/book/tv version or were just never going to like it because Douglas Adams had a particular voice and that voice was understandably not for everybody. I really only understand the last one. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie is an excellent movie in its own right, even if isn’t the definitive version of the story.

Part of my disconnect is likely that I backed into The Hitchhiker’s Guide. I saw the movie first. I loved it. Being the reader that I am, the first thing I did after watching it was track down the book. Which I also loved. I haven’t returned to the book much, mostly because nearly all of the best bits are in the movie and it can be experienced in less than two hours. I didn’t get deep into Adams; I didn’t read the rest of the series or any of his other work. I just moved on to other things, and this movie became a pleasant memory from college.

In reading up on the movie’s reputation I found numerous complaints about how the movie missed the spirit of the earlier versions, which I find preposterous. That spirit, embodied by clever wordplay, sly jokes, understated darkness, and general absurdity, is in the movie in spades. The movie translates most of the first book word for word; the first book is just really short. I reread the book after rewatching the movie; I still think the movie got most of it. Not everything translated off the page perfectly, and some portions weren’t really attempted, but the heart of the book come across perfectly.

After reading the book, I watched the 1981 TV version on Amazon, hoping it would provide the Rosetta Stone for understanding why fans of the property were not especially big fans of the movie. It did, in a way. (Here’s the line that would get me hate mail if anyone read my blog.) The TV version reminded me forcefully that nostalgia is a hell of a drug. This version looks cheap and is so shapeless and meandering as to make the book look like it was plotted with clockwork precision. The book already had a tendency to just move on to the next thing when it was done with the joke. The TV show does the same, except the pacing of each scene is bloated and sagging. Structurally, the show is barely a show at all. It feels much like a sketch show, with each episode moving to a completely different setting and concept that just so happens to carry over some of the same cast. A lot of it feels like a radio play set to film. All the acting is done in the dialogue; there is little of interest actually happening on screen. This is not meant to be read as a screed against good dialogue, only to note that TV is a visual medium and maybe the show should have had something worth watching on screen. There are some good creature designs, but it is mostly a lot of people standing and talking. Two-headed Zaphod is a straight up disaster, with his second head being almost as well realized as the one on Michael Scott’s halloween costume. The show simply looks bad.

This. This looks really bad.

A lot of disdain for the movie came from people praising the TV show and I simply don’t get it. I can understand people not liking the changes and additions (more on those later) to the movie from the book, but the TV show praise is baffling to me. A lot of that praise is for the performances, although the reasons for that, other than simple nostalgia, elude me. Again, many of these feel like performances for radio. They recede on screen, leaving the settings to do a lot of the acting. It makes it hard for me to even compare the performances. Zaphod is fine, though he seems to be struggling under the costume to give the character any energy. David Dixon makes Ford the most dynamic character on the show, but even he has a tendency to get lost in the shuffle. Simon Jones as Arthur Dent suffers the most as the show goes on. He is great early, but as the other characters show up, he all but disappears, even when the rest of the cast actually disappears. Trillian is a mess. I guess I see how people who grew up with these versions could prefer them, but they are mostly just fine mouthpieces for good dialogue that bring little else to the table. Honestly, I am glad the TV series was not the first version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy I experienced, because I doubt I would have been a fan.

The movie, though, does have quite a few changes and additions from the book. Mostly, those are in the name of giving some form to the shapeless book. Part of the charm of the book—and the TV series I assume—is that scattered nature. It starts big, with the destruction of the Earth, but after that things just sort of happen. Revelations come fast and frequent, usually with little bearing on what came before it or what comes after. That was never going to fly in a movie version. So it added something of a quest to the search for Magrathea, which was something of a fait accompli in the book and show. Now, the crew has to get directions from Zaphod’s enemy Humma Kavula, which leads to a detour to Vogsphere. Those things were added for the movie. Honestly, they fit in almost seamlessly, though some of the humor is a little slapstick. Not significantly more so than stuff like a sperm whale crashing to the ground from outer space, but there is some. Outside of a knee-jerk dislike of everything new, there are two differences I’ve seen get a lot of hate. Understandably is the change in the nature of the relationship between Trillian and Arthur. Adding romance is the one change that really feels like a Hollywood change and not just an “accepted rules of storytelling” change. The romance is not needed to for cohesion or structure, it is just there. It doesn’t ruin the movie or anything, but if feels somewhat unnecessary. Inexplicably, people also hate the opening musical number. “So Long and Thanks for all the Fish” is a delight. Opening the movie with a satirical musical number ostensibly sung by dolphins tells the viewer exactly what they are in for. It is visually interesting, something the couldn’t be done in the book; it does, however, bring in something from the book in a visually interesting way.

I watched the movie again after rereading the book and watching the show. My esteem for the movie is undiminished. I love the cast; they are almost to a person better than the show performances. I guess I understand how people could prefer Dixon’s Ford to Mos Def’s chill version, but I liked Def’s take. It works with what is in the book. Otherwise, movie performances all the way. Especially Sam Rockwell’s Zaphod, who is an energetic mix of George W Bush and Elvis. Seeing people crap on the musical number to start the movie, then watching that musical number again cemented for me the idea the movie was never going to be successful. It had been too long and fans had too strong an idea of what had to be there for the movie to work. So movie gets dinged because some mildly funny dialogue got left on the cutting room floor or a stinger joke just before the credits suggest that the restaurant at the end of the universe is at a certain place and not a certain time. I mean, the movie left out all the jokes about digital watches. How can it purport to be The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without jokes about digital watches?

The movie is not a perfect translation of the book, which is what it most closely mirrors. But it it certainly a more effective film translation than the TV series. I might track down the radio version some day; I am not opposed to audio only entertainment (note: I should write someday about how I first experienced Star Wars through the radio versions). Maybe that version is the best version. For now, I’ll stick with book as the ideal form and the movie for when I just need to be entertained. On its own merits, the movie is excellent.

Alita Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel is possibly the most successful attempt an American studio has made to turn a classic anime or manga into a live action movie. There have been disasters (Dragon Ball Evolution) and unfortunate misses (Ghost in the Shell, Death Note), along with one arguable classic (Speed Racer). Alita does a lot of things right, without ever managing to really elevate itself out of the morass of other effects heavy would be blockbusters. There is little I can point to that the movie does wrong, but there also isn’t anything that Alita: Battle Angel does that is truly memorable. That leaves us with a competent, often enjoyable movie that I expect to hard pressed to remember I watched in six months.

While the special effects are good, there is one effect that is an initial hurdle for anyone watching this movie. The title character, and only the title character, has big anime eyes. Some people appear to not be bothered by this; maybe the same will be true for you. I found it distracting. Additionally, with all of is close ups of Alita’s face, the movie will not let you forget your distraction. Otherwise, the effects are good. Honestly, the effect of the eyes isn’t badly done, just poorly considered.

If you can clear that hurdle, you are in for a romp not unlike the overstuffed delight Aquaman. Alita is based on a episodic manga, and it shows, as the movie ping pongs from one outlandish idea to the next. The central pillars of the movie are Alita coming to terms with her identity and her relationships with Dr. Ido and her love interest Hugo. It starts with Dr. Ido finding the almost purely robotic Alita in a scrap heap and giving her a new body, She has no memories of her past. Dr. Ido takes a fatherly interest in Alita. Alita also meets Hugo, a cool neighborhood boy who teaches her about Motorball and life in the depressing confines of Iron City. Soon, Dr. Ido’s life moonlighting as a “Hunter-Warrior” comes out, as does Alita’s combat skills. While fighting, she gets glimpses of her past, and tries to join Ido in an attempt to learn more about herself. Her relationship with Hugo grows, but he is hiding a secret.

That quick synopsis leaves out about a dozen smaller threads woven through this movie. While Alita: Battle Angel meanders all over the place, it never takes the focus off Alita. How much a person enjoys the movie likely comes down to how charmed they are by this dystopia. A lot of time is spent on the goofy future sport Motorball, wherein cyborgs play rollerblade basketball to the death. Whether it is a highlight or a waste of time like comes down to personal preference.

Alita: Battle Angel didn’t really work for me. However, I was reminded while watching it of Mortal Engines and Aquaman from late last year. Those movies hit me in the sweet spot; I loved them. Any complaints I can make against Alita are likely shared by those movies. It just comes down to how a movie hit the viewer, whether it engages their imagination. Alita: Battle Angel didn’t really do anything for me, but I can’t fault the people who got a big kick out of it.

***

What I Read January 2019

I guess I read quite a few books in January; three novels and three comic strip collections. I didn’t finish one book I have been working on for nearly six months. Still, it is a solid start to the year, especially if I want to hit my goal number this year of 30 books. Which is quite the come down from the more than fifty I was averaging before law school, but it is still a decent amount.

Sparkling Cyanide

Agatha Christie
An Agatha Christie mystery that doesn’t star any of her well known detectives. A year ago, a young woman, Rosemary Barton, apparently committed suicide by putting cyanide in her champagne. Her husband, George, receives a letter telling him that she was murdered. Realizing that the culprit must be one of the other seven people at the party, he invites them all to a dinner at the same place on the one year anniversary, with a plan to expose the culprit. Unfortunately, George suffers the same fate as his wife. It would have been accepted as a suicide, had George not told Colonel Race about his suspicions and his plan. So Race sets out to find the killer. He goes about it in the usual way, interviewing the witnesses and uncovering a bunch of betrayals and recriminations amongst the party. It is a pretty standard mystery. There is no big twist on the form, merely a largely excellent execution of it.

At the Water’s Edge

Sara Gruen

I am conflicted on this review, because I generally enjoyed this book as I read it over a cold weekend, but I don’t think it is that good. At the Water’s Edge touches on a lot of interesting topics without ever truly engaging with them or actually being interesting. Like the idea that the protagonist, Maddie, is going with her husband to search for the Loch Ness Monster. While the trip is clearly the not serious on the part of the husband, the book doesn’t do much to examine if the characters truly believe. It also makes the Maddie’s husband, Ellis, so irredeemable that it is impossible to believe she ever believed anything he said, though the way one of the villainous reveals is framed is just kind of gross.

The novel starts with the Maddie, Ellis and their friend embarrassing themselves at a party. This is doubly embarrassing for her husband’s parents because it is in the middle of WWII and the husband has been found 4F and is not serving in the military. With his parents cutting him off, he hatches a plan to go to Scotland and search for the Loch Ness monster, which his father had done years before, ending in some unexplained embarrassment for the family. Once they get to their hotel in Scotland, the Maddie sees how the war has affected the people there and just how callous she has been. While her husband continues being gross, she starts to grow. It isn’t an especially complex story; everything is pretty much black and white. People in this book are almost exactly what they initially seem. Still, it only took a few hours to read and while I expect to forget that I read by the middle of the year, I largely enjoyed it. I do wish it had had more Loch Ness monster content.

Calvin and Hobbes (The Days are Just Packed, Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat, Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons)
Bill Watterson

I’ve had these Calvin and Hobbes collections sitting on my kindle for ages, but never really made an attempt to read them. I believe I have read nearly the whole run of this strip. I had encountered most of these before. You already know that Calvin and Hobbes is great, right? Because Calvin and Hobbes is great and these a really good collections.

Japanese Tales

Translated and Edited by Royall Tyler

This is a collection of Japanese Folk tales. They are interesting. Many are truly foreign. Not because they are strange, western folk and fairy tales are often strange, but because they end with morals that are so different from anything I recognize. It makes sense that this book actually starts with a 50 page primer on ancient Japanese culture and myths, laying a groundwork for an American reader to gain at least some of the groundwork necessary to understand these stories. The tales in this book are relatively short, ranging from only a few sentences long to a few pages. They have been grouped in logical blocks of stories with similar themes or characters. It is a fascinating collection, alternately gruesome, gross, sweet or silly. What stood out most to me is how many of these stories I knew from playing Clover Studios masterpiece Okami, which also largely dealt in myth and folktales.

What I Watched January 2019

Movies
The Phantom – Oh my God! How is this movie not widely regarded as a classic? It is a near perfect action adventure movie. I need to write something more full bodied about this movie. I loved everything about it. *****

Punisher War Zone – This showed up on Netflix and I jumped on it. It is astounding. This is a movie that realizes how much of a cartoon the Punisher actually is. It plays it like a serious crime drama in some ways, but in others it is more like a Looney Tunes cartoon. It is an appealing mix. ****

Support the Girls – An interesting film, starring Regina Hall (check that) as the manager of a Hooters-like restaurant. It follows her for a day, as she does her best to look out for her employees while dealing with the unreasonable owner and some bad decisions from those employees. It manages to not be completely crushing while highlighting the difficulties faced by its characters. ****1/2

Blindspotting – I’ve reviewed this here. I watched it again and I think it holds up on subsequent viewings. *****

His Girl Friday – A great screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Lots of rapid fire dialogue and witty lines. It is a delight. *****

The Addams Family – I’ve reviewed this before. I might not be able to analyze this movie objectively. I don’t care, I love it. *****

On the Basis of Sex – read review here. ***1/2

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek – read review here. ****

Serenity – read review here. *1/2

Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened – One of two nearly simultaneously released Fyre documentaries. This one, from Netflix, is more slickly produced and takes a close look at exactly how this disaster came to be. It is more of a blow by blow of the disastrous set up for the failed festival. Both of these docs are compromised in some ways, this one was partly produced by the advertising company who advertised for Fyre, and they do their best to ease their culpability. It is an interesting story. ***

Fyre Fraud – The other Fyre documentary, this one from Hulu. It is a little more ramshackle and has a greater focus on how Fyre became a thing culturally and more of the effect on the victims. Again, this one is possibly ethically compromised by paying Billy McFarland, the man chiefly responsible, for an interview, though the doc doesn’t go easy on him. This one takes a much more strident view of the failed festival as a crime. Honestly, they are about equally good and are different enough that they don’t overlap all that much, so watching both gives a really complete look at this mess. ***

Austin Powers in Goldmember – There are parts of this movie that don’t work 15 or so years later. There are lots of dated cultural references, though not the Tom Cruise cameo. The wordplay and genial goofiness, though, hold up quite well. I’ve written before about how there is something comforting about these movies that were big when I was in high school, regardless of their actual quality. ****

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – It has been a long time since I actually sat and watched Fellowship. This is an excellent movie. It really is a journey, and does an amazing job of laying the foundation for the rest of this epic. The most dynamic character, in this film, is Boromir. You get a great sense of his struggle, of how his need to help his homeland causes him to fail and betray his allies, at least momentarily. This is such a great movie, so many unforgettable moments. *****

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – Still great. *****

TV
A Series of Unfortunate Events S2&3 – I should maybe read this books some day. They came out when I was a little too old to be paying attention. Based on this show, though, I really like this series’ sensibility. I love its mix if macabre humor, literary references and meta-textual tricks. I watched the first season when it came out, but skipped the second season for some reason. When the third hit, I sped through both of them. The show is so great. Really solid performances from the kids, and Neil Patrick Harris is clearly having a great time as the villainous Count Olaf. The show is at its best when it leans into it showiness. It does a great job of appearing happy and peppy, while spending the whole time telling the viewer that this is an unhappy story. When the unhappy turns come, they aren’t shocking. In fact, as a viewer you are disappointed in yourself for expecting anything else. This is a really solid show.

Homecoming – I wish I had more to say about this show. It is very good. It is a mystery that plays out across two time periods, with Julia Roberts playing a counselor at a facility for soldiers with PTSD in the past and working as a waitress in the present. I don’t want to say more and risk spoiling anything. It is very good.

Outlander S4 – Season 4 did a lot of good things, but it is adapting a book that is rough to condense into a TV season. It is a transitional book in the series; developing a new setting for the series going forward. The season, at least the back half, chose to focus on the romance between Brianna and Roger. That is the most important thread from the book and it manages to construct a solid enough story. The problem is, knowing how things go in the book I had a hard time accepting a lot of the changes made. Mostly because I know they will frequently have cascading effects. If I could think of a good reason for some of the changes, for example in the book when Roger leaves Brianna after finding her in Wilmington (?) it is with the express promise to meet her later. In the show, he does so after being told to go back to their own time. The change makes the fight more memorable, I guess, but why later is Brianna waiting for Roger, when she doesn’t know he is coming back. There are numerous such changes, and it makes for a sometimes frustrating watch. Still, I am looking forward to the next season. Hopefully it has more Fergus and Marsali.

Future Man S1&2 – This is a frustrating show. Because it is often very close to being very good. If someone told me they loved it, I wouldn’t think twice about it. There is a lot to like. But something about it consistently put me off. It is in how the show mixes humor and science fiction. It pivots from one to the other when it should stick with what it was doing; going from a working comedy bit to a science fiction bit. When the show actually manages to blend the two, it sings. More often they clash, making for a show that feels like it should be better, even though it is already mostly good. I would watch a season 3, but I can’t say I would miss this show much if it disappeared.

Sex Education – This show takes places in nowhere. It seems like it is set now, in the late 80’s in some small British town in Ohio. If you can get past that weirdness, it is a solid teen drama. Otis, a repressed teen with a sex therapist mother, teams up with Maeve, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, team up to provide sex therapy to their classmates. The show introduces a ton of teens who are having teen problems, some of them sexual, some not. Soon, Maeve and Otis are not only helping their classmates, they are also dealing with their own personal problems. That impossible setting gives the show a sort of timelessness; there are elements that are very reminiscent of my own teen years, despite other parts being things I never encountered. It is another show that front-loads some of its harshest content; the show gets a lot more comfortable after a rough first episode that does seems to be trying to do to much. It just gets better as it goes around.

Happy! – This show should not work as well as it does. Chris Meloni stars as an ex-cop turned drugged out hitman. He finds a new partner in Happy, a young girl’s imaginary friend sent to find help after she had been kidnapped. Things start weird, and get weirder. Meloni’s Nick Sax is a force of nature. He is very good at a few things, the most important one, on this show at least, is killing people. It does a great job of showing how deadly he is up front, so it makes sense when people sent to kill him later treat him like he’s John Wick. And Meloni infuses everything he does with a coked out madness that is also somewhat sad. I feel the need to stress that the show is often gross. It works anyway; I really like it. I am ready for season 2.

Golaith S2 – This show completely fell apart at about the halfway point. I’ve loosed my venom elsewhere and I don’t really have it in me to tear into this miserable show again. It is ostensibly a legal drama, but all the legal parts of it go away near the midpoint. That element is replaced with preposterously stupid nonsense about a Mexican cartel. Character’s motivations just switch, making no sense with what came before. It confuses darkness with depth. It is really just bad in every way it could be bad. I know a season 3 is coming, I hope it is more like season 1 than this pile of shit.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego – A new Netflix cartoon take on this classic edutainment character. This show turns Carmen Sandiego into a hero, making her a kind of Robin Hood like figure. It mostly works, and occasionally gets in it history lessons. The back story is very involved, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It is pitched a little young for me, but the show seems about perfect for like 8-12 year olds. I was drawn in for nostalgia for old Carmen Sandiego games.

Frontier S2 – I am going to be completely honest; I sort of lost the plot with this show. There are so many characters and I started it long ago enough that I don’t quite remember who they all are. I had enough fun with it, but it a little like watching a show through fog. I almost need to start over rather than moving on to season 3 like I intended to.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt S4 Part 2 – These final six episodes of what has been one of my favorite Netflix shows were slightly disappointing. It doesn’t really feel like they were aware they were in the endgame until right at the end and there aren’t quite as many laugh out loud moments as were in previous seasons. That second problem is understandable, since this is only half a season. There are good moments, but nothing touches the first half of the season’s Party Monster episode. The big swing is the alternate reality Sliding Van Doors episode, which doesn’t quite work as well as it should. It has its moments and is a good episode, but I don’t think it is a great one. Still, I am sad to see this show go. With the loss of this and of Great News, there is suddenly a dearth of Tina Fey/Robert Carlock comedy coming. Maybe I should just be glad I got 4 seasons of this, 2 of Great News, and 7 of 30 Rock. Kimmy Schmidt has been one of the funniest shows on television since it started and I look forward to the possibility of a follow up movie.

The Good Place S3 – This might not be as consistently excellent as the first two seasons were, but if not it is still damn close. The show continues to just eternally upend everything every couple of episodes. It remains one of the funniest shows on TV, capable of getting laughs out of jokes about relatively obscure philosophers. The best show on television.

Now Playing January 2019

Beaten

Etrian Odyssey V – read about it here.

Pillars of Eternity & The White March – As a big fan of Black Isle studios rpgs, I backed the Pillars of Eternity kickstarter way back in 2012. Unfortunately, when the game came out my old laptop was not quite up to the task of running it. So I let the game languish in my steam library for the last couple of years. Over Christmas, I realized that not only did I have a computer capable of running the game, I also had the time to play it. So installed it, bought the expansion and tried it out.

The game delivered everything I hoped it would. I don’t know that it is quite as good as Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale, but it delivered a substantially similar experience. It took me some time to learn the rules, but once I did everything felt right. The most important part of this sort of game is character creation. Pillars of Eternity gives you a lot of options. The hard part is choosing what direction to go. There is almost always a best choice, either with the goal of min/maxing the game or just choosing a class the fits the best with the rest of the team members you want to use. I went with a dwarven ranger with stag animal companion. I also tried out a chanter. On an initial playthrough, the game seems to have done a solid job of balancing the need for physical fighters and various spellcasters. The weakness is that there is no rogue party member without the White March expansion. You can get trapfinding abilities without being a rogue, but rogue do get an advantage there and aren’t pulled in different directions like mages. You can make extra party members to fill in gaps, but they won’t have personalities like the game’s premade companions.

The place where I at first found the game lacking but some came to see as a strength is its array of party members. The first two it hands out are Aloth and Eder, seem a little disappointing. They aren’t really exciting characters initially. I never really warmed to Aloth’s gimmick. But Eder’s gimmick is essentially that he doesn’t have one. He just this laconic fighter who occasionally drops in witty, wry comments. As the game went on, doing his character quest and otherwise, he developed into one of my favorite characters in the game. Mostly because he could have normal reactions to things while also occasionally having something interesting to say. No one is likely to find all the characters interesting, but on the whole they are largely well written and well developed. Aside from Eder, I greatly enjoyed adventuring with the proud Paladin Pallegina, and the dwarven ranger Sagani (having another ranger with my player character also being a ranger kind of limited options, but I liked her). I also used Hiravias quite a bit. The only character I didn’t warm to at all was Cana Rua, and honestly I didn’t truly give him a chance. And the new characters of the White March fit in surprisingly well. Even the robot character. I found Zahua’s backstory surprisingly effective and I really enjoyed Maneha’s general vibe.

I guess I’ve had good luck. Nearly all the kickstarter games I backed delivered. I am glad I backed this one. This game is excellent.

Zack & Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure – read about it here.

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King – read about it here.

Ongoing

Celeste – I am so close to the end on this. It is such a good game. I have played a lot of hard platformers, but I don’t think I’ve played one that is as devious as this game is and that trains its players how to beat it. You can point to the first stage of Super Mario Bros for a beginners guide for teaching a player how to deal with obstacles in a game and many games follow a similar progression, Celeste uses those tool more effectively than most. It is aided in this by its friendly to lives and respawning. The game all but encourages the player to try things out, because the penalty for death is so small. That small penalty makes it less frustrating when the game is really hard. It reminds me a lot of 1001 Spikes, a game I love.

Dragon Quest 11 – I got this for Christmas, and through the first fifteen or so hours it is everything I could possibly want out of a new Dragon Quest game. I like my party, half-formed as it is at this point. I love the way Dragon Quest tells its stories through vignettes that are largely self-contained but manage to advance the central story in small ways. Functionally, this game is not much different from Dragon Quest V. The change is almost entirely visual and this game looks astounding. I am sure those who are more technically minded could point out flaws and compromises in this game’s visuals, I see what looks like a near perfect realization of Akira Toriyama’s designs as 3D figures. I could see people complaining about the lack of innovation here, but I have no problem with a game effectively executing a formula so long as it is a good formula, and Dragon Quest’s formula is one of the best.

Luigi’s Mansion Dark Moon – I cleared the first few missions on this. For some reason it has a bad habit of closing itself and kicking me back to the home menu. Maybe I am holding the 3DS oddly and hitting the power button. Whatever is happening, it is frustrating. This is fine so far, but it is getting kicked back down the queue as soon as Etrian Odyssey Nexus is released.

 

Upcoming

Etrian Odyssey Nexus – This comes out early next month and will take over my 3DS for the foreseeable future. Honestly, this is feeling as much like a farewell to playing new games on my trusty old handheld as much a farewell to this series that is likely ending with that handheld. Good night, sweet prince, et cetera, et cetera.

Disney’s Epic Mickey – My ongoing quest to finish up some old Wii games that have been sitting around half finished comes to this almost classic. I liked this game just fine a decade ago, but I got distracted before finishing it. Epic Mickey doesn’t want for ambition, I’ll say that at least.

Beyond Good and Evil – an online game club I am a part of is playing this game. I intend to dig out my copy and spend some time with it in the next few weeks. Maybe I’ll beat it, I don’t remember it being that long.

Serenity

I was excited to see Serenity. It has a good cast, with stars like Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, as well as excellent supporting players like Diane Lane (she is a star, but she is supporting here), Jason Clarke and Djimon Hounsou. The initial concept is appealing as well, a sun-drenched tropical noir, with McConaughey’s Baker Dill being asked to do something bad for a whole lot of money. The twist, which I will endeavor not to spoil other than to acknowledge that a twist exists, sends things off into crazy town. Honestly, though, the movie was off the rails before that, in some ways as groundwork for the twist, in others that just make no sense.

Baker Dill is a fisherman, hiding from his mysterious past on a tropical island. He hires his boat out to fishermen, but doesn’t make a lot of money because he has a habit of snatching the poles away from his customer when he suspects he is about to land his nemesis, a giant tuna Dill has named Justice. When on the shore, he either spends his time sticking it to lonely widow Constance, who pays him for his company to make up for his fishing failures when he returns her persistently lost cat, or drinking at the one local bar. Soon, the answer to his money troubles appears in the form of his ex-wife, played by Anne Hathaway. She tells him that her new husband Frank is abusive to both her and their son and asks Dill to kill him. Dill is understandably hesitant, but soon events go in a direction impossible to foresee.

While it may be part of setting up the twist, the set up in the first half of the movie is laughable. It has terrible dialogue and ridiculous premises. I already mentioned the tuna named Justice, which is actually close to subtle in for this movie. Constance spends her time either with Dill in bed or watching him out her window. People do and say the same things every day. This is only broken up by brief unexplained glimpses of Dill’s son. Then there is the new new husband, Frank, who is perfectly loathsome. He starts bad, with accusations of abuse, and just gets worse and worse. From forcing his wife to call him Daddy to suggesting a night out on the town to find underage prostitutes. In every way a person can be gross, Frank is gross. It is a symptom of the movie not knowing when there is enough. Like Dill’s obsession with a fish called Justice.

The set up is for a cliche noir story, but with the cast on hand that might have been enough for a watchable film. Not something truly memorable, but probably entertaining enough. Serenity is not content with simple competence, so it takes a big swing and strikes out. The twist is bewildering, with the rules making less and less sense the more you think about them.

I will say this for Serenity; it is certainly memorable. It is not often that a movie this perplexingly bad hits theaters. It is a special kind of disaster; one where the filmmakers saw the ruin they were headed to and steered into the mess rather than attempting to salvage things. Serenity is entertainingly terrible.

*1/2