What I Watched April 2019

Movies

Observe and Report – God, this is dark. Just pitch black. Seth Rogen is a mall cop with delusions of being a cop. He just keeps pushing things further and further, supposedly towards his goal, but his understanding of everything is fucked up. Just watching how deep he goes just amanges to be more funny that disturbing. ****

The Legend of Cocaine Island – This is a wild ride. In the midst of the recession, a man learns of an urban legend of cocaine buried on an island near Florida. He hatches a plan to go get it. This documentary tells how it all went wrong. It is really enjoyable. ***1/2

Hellboy – read review here. *1/2

Shazam – read review here. *****

Austin Powers in Goldmember – I’ve written about the Austin Powers movies before. I watched this as background noise while studying for finals. ****

Avengers: Infinity War – I liked this better on a rewatch. It is still a two and half hour climax that somehow ends with an anti-climax. It’s pretty good. ****

Thor: Ragnarok – I liked this a lot when it came out, but I think I like it even more now. Like, it might be my favorite Marvel movie. Everytime I watch it, it gets better. *****

Avengers: Endgame – read review here. ***1/2

Snatch – It feels like a long time since I’ve watched this. I have long been a fan of Guy Ritchie, and this is maybe his best. It intercuts between a handful of groups at various levels of criminality in the London underworld. Some are just trying to get by, some are running the game. Their stories collide and intersect in humorous and deadly ways. It is a lot of fun. *****

TV

I Think You Should Leave, with Tim Robinson – I went into this with no expectations, and it might be my favorite TV show I’ve seen all year. It is six short episodes of sketch comedy from Tim Robinson. Most of the sketches start with someone telling a lie and continue as that lie snowballs. It is such a simple conceit, but they take it in so many interesting ways. I am going to spend the next few months gushing about this show to anyone who will listen; telling them about how Scrooge saves Christmas or how skeletons use bones and/or worms for money. There are a few dud sketches, but there are so many great ones it is hard to care.

Santa Clarita Diet – I am really sad this turned out to be the last season of this Netflix show. It has been one of the service bright spots since it started. A zombie sitcom should have been a tired idea, but Santa Clarita Diet made it work. A big part of its success was the perfect comic timing, both in the writing and between its leads. Timothy Olyphant, Drew Barrymore, Liv Hewson, and Skyler Gisondo are all great. Olyphant and Barrymore especially, who are astoundingly believable as a married couple. The fact that it managed to combine the comedy with really solid heart, with making the viewer care about its characters more and more as the show went on is the biggest reason why it was so disappointing to see it cancelled. Another good Netflix show bites the dust.

Doom Patrol – Since this ends next month, I’ll write something more about it then, but this show is really good. I thought DC Universe’s Titans was better than expected, this is one of the best superhero TV shows ever made. It captures something that works for me perfectly in the self-loathing of most of its characters. That is something I’ve always related to, and it is used to great effect here.

Shrill – This stars SNL’s Aidy Bryant as a writer who struggles with having internalized the world dismissal of herself because of her weight. It manages to be pretty funny while only rarely really living up to its title. It is a solid comedy.

The Staircase – A solid documentary series about a man accused of murdering his wife. It originally follows him and his defense team as he goes through trial. There are a pair of coda series that deal with the aftermath. It might be a little too long. The best part is seeing it go into detail of how they plan his defense and seeing how it plays out in court. That is especially interesting to me, since I am currently in law school. This is really good.

The Orville – This show morphed from a comedy version of Star Trek: The Next Generation into just Star Trek: The Next Generation. The crew of the Orville is not quite as competent as that of the Enterprise, but the result is largely the same. This season expanded things from the last season, and was well worth watching for any fan of Star Trek. It isn’t a perfect show, but it is a good one.

Traitors – This was a big disappointment. It is about an English woman getting wrapped up in spying for the Americans on British citizens, looking for Soviet sympathizers. It just never really gets past the starting point. I wanted more. I love Michael Stuhlbarg, and thought the star Emma Appleton was really good, but the show just seemed kind of muted.

Bosch S5 – There is something comforting about this show. It isn’t great; it is just a solidly very good cop drama. The solving of a handful of cases, one major case and a few peripheral ones, play out over the course of ten episodes. It rarely goes too big, and balances its characters various interests. It is just very good TV. This season was no exception.

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What I Read April 2019

Only two books in April, which means I am back on my law school pace. I don’t expect things to get better from here. Maybe three books a month seems like the best I can hope for these days.

First Among Sequels

Jasper Fforde

I still really like Thursday Next. This is the first book of the sequel series, with Thursday now the mother of three children. After the last book, Something Rotten, brought many of the plotlines to a close, this one reshuffles things and deals out a new string of plotlines.

My favorite of the new plotlines is Thursday’s adventures in BookWorld with her two new apprentices. Those apprentices are fictional and they just so happen to be the two fictional versions of Thursday. The first is Thursday 1-4, books that occurred before Thursday had a say over how her adventures were written and, supposedly, the four books that represent the series so far. She is essentially an 80’s bad cop action movie star. The other is Thursday 5, the star of the fifth book in the series. But not this book, the lost fifth book, The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco. This version of Thursday is vegan hippy push-over. That reception of her book caused the end of the series. In real Thursday’s mind, neither are cut out for the job, though for opposite reasons. All three grow and learn over the course of the adventure. That is just one thread of many that are going on over the course of the book. This is such a great series.

Downtiming the Night Side

Jack L Chalker

I feel like I should either have a lot to say about this book, or very little to say.  Jack Chalker is a science fiction writer whose work gets WEIRD.  This book is not exception. It is a time travel story.  Terrorists take over a time travel facility and travel back in time.  The protagonist is sent after them.  This books take on time travel works something like Quantum Leap, but if you stay in the past too long you get stuck in the past body.  The initial mission goes sideways, but the protagonist, Ron Moosic, is saved by a mysterious time traveler.  He is then wrapped up in a time war from the future.  Things continue to go badly for him, as his mind is being affected by all the other people he’s been.

The is some weird post-human stuff that goes on, with the future people having evolved to live in space with various differing adaptations.  Except they never actually appear in the book, people just tell other people about them.  Then there are people on the night side, which are people who can’t return to their time because history has changed and they no longer exist.  At the risk of spoiling everything [so stop now if you don’t want to know], Ron meets and falls in love with Dawn.  They have kids together.  But Ron grows old, so he and his friends plan to strand him in a new body long enough for it to become permanent, without him losing his mind to the new body.  They do so, and his new body turns out to be Dawn.  His friends pull him back to before Ron and Dawn met, and now Ron is on the other side of the relationship.  What I am saying is that this book is freaking weird.

Avengers Endgame

This is a hard movie to review.  I get why people love it, but it was such an uneven experience for me that I ended up walking out of the theater somehow completely satisfied and a little disappointed.  For more than two hours of Avengers Endgame’s runtime it is easily the best Avengers movie.  It is focused and narratively coherent, while also having a real solid theme and doing great character stuff.  It is everything I could want from superhero movie.  Then the finale hits, and none of the payoff lands.

Endgame is a movie about loss and grief and how people handle it.  The surviving Avengers all deal with it in a different way.  Natasha throws herself into her work, Tony retreats to his family, Steve pushes himself to help others through it, etc.  Thor, who lost more than anyone between Infinity War and Ragnarok, kind of gives up completely.  The movie lets each character process things in their own way and spends time digging into how and why they have reacted the way they did.  It is some of the best character stuff in any of the Marvel movies, let alone the always overstuffed Avengers movies.

I also loved the middle section of this movie.  The time heist was great.  They chose some really interesting scenes to revisit.  Sure, going back to The Avengers was a no brainer; I may personally believe it has aged poorly, but that was when the MCU went from a handful of decent to good movies to a full on phenomenon.  Likewise, jumping back to the start of the original Guardians of the Galaxy makes sense because that is when the movies first really left Earth.  The third drop in for the time heist is the most interesting choice, with Thor and Rocket stopping in during Thor: The Dark World.  While not all the movies have been equal in terms of how important they are to the overarching story of the MCU, the two that have been the most comprehensively ignored since their releases are The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World.  Endgame manages to pull more pathos out of that movie than was in it to begin with.  The time heist overall manages to be both a lot of fun, and really dig down into the core of most of it characters.  Especially the original Avengers, excluding the Hulk.  Tony gets to hash things out with his dad, Cap gets another look at the life he lost, and Thor gets a few precious moments with a world he has lost.  Then there is the big scene between Nat and Clint, which works for both characters, even if I think it doesn’t get quite get to where it wants to.

All is going well until the big climactic moment.  It is a big moment that brings in nearly every superhero to appear in one of these movies.  However, unlike the sprawling battle from Infinity War, this battle didn’t work at all for me.  The geography of the battle makes no sense, its objectives make no sense, there is no flow or feel.  It is just twenty or so minutes of largely pointless violence.  Getting to see some cool hero shots doesn’t really fix anything.  It takes a movie that had fun and entertaining and just lands with a big, deflating thud.

At least the wrap up after the fight scene was suitably emotional and well done.  This movie is definitely an end, and it clears the deck for movies to come.  Movies that, for the first time in like a half decade, we don’t know are coming.  Outside of a few obvious ones, at least.

Someone else, I’m sorry I don’t remember who for attribution, noted that these last two Avengers movies work as a strange pair of inverted expectations.  Infinity War was largely a downbeat, mournful adventure. Endgame, on the other hand, is sparkling light-footed meditation on loss.  The start of this movie is a fitting coda to its predecessor, the middle section is as much fun as any Avengers movie has been, but that ending lets it all down.  I know that is not a popular position to take, but while I applaud the ambition and scope of that last fight, it also worked to disconnect me from a movie that I had been largely in sync with until that point.  The point where when the final climax hits, I felt nothing at what was objectively a very cool line.  This is also a movie that, the longer I think about it, the less I like it.  There are a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of strange choices.  Still, it is a fitting and entertaining end to more than a decade of good movies.

****

Hellboy Review

If I am being completely honest, I was not too happy to hear that instead of a third Guillermo Del Toro Hellboy movie, we were instead going to be getting a reboot.  However, I tried my best to put my disappointment aside and go into the new movie with an open mind.  It wasn’t like Del Toro’s Hellboy was a particularly close adaptation of the comics, there is certainly room for a different but still good take.  Hellboy (2019) is certainly different, but it is not good.

This movie shares many traits with Del Toro’s Hellboy movies.  As is common with Del Toro movies, his Hellboy movies largely sympathized with the monsters.  Hellboy and Abe Sapien most obviously, but even the one off creatures and the villains are generally portrayed at least partially sympathetically.  This movie does the same.  Again, that almost goes without saying with Hellboy, but also villains like the Gruagach and Nimue get at least some moments of sympathy.  It also features a lot of practical creature effects, though there feels like there is more CGI here.  If only the movie around the these things was enjoyable.

This new Hellboy is focused, almost exclusively, on two things: plot and gore.  The first is not necessarily a problem.  Hellboy is an action movie and those tend to focus on plot. Hellboy, though, crams in enough plot for three movies.  It feels like it is consciously trying not to fall into the trap of that many would be franchise starters do, of spending a lot of time setting up stuff for future movies.  To Hellboy’s credit, it puts as much on the screen as possible.  It tries to tell a story, but the story is just too much, like a trilogy crammed into one movie.  The movie feels like it is sprinting from one set piece to another, without ever taking time to really explore the concepts it introduces.  It starts in Medieval times, with King Arthur defeating Nimue, the Blood Queen.  Then it jumps to Hellboy in Mexico tracking down a lost agent, before shunting him off London to hunt giants, only to be betrayed by his friends.  Mixed into that are scenes of a pig monster, the Gruagach, hunting down the pieces of the quartered Blood Queen in order to revive her.  Then Hellboy gets in on the race for the parts of the Blood Queen, which sends him all over England.  There is just so much.  It is coherent, but it mostly exists as just a bunch of half formed concepts that exist to propel the story along without actually being about anything.

While the story is just a little too much, the gore is definitely a problem. It reveals a big problem with the movie, stressing affect rather than tone. This movie started out with the intention of being rated R, and made sure it had the gore to earn it, whether or not that gore was necessary or helpful.  It wants so bad to be cool and adult that it makes itself appear all the more juvenile.  It is just trying to hard, and the gore is a big part of that.  It feels desperate.  Honestly, if it had just relaxed and been the movie it was, it would have been much more likeable.  It wouldn’t have fixed all of the movie’s problems, but it would have made them more forgivable.

There is stuff in Hellboy to like.  The cast does their best with the material they have; the highlight being Ian McShane.  Hellboy is a great concept.  But the movie is just … bad. All the pieces are here, but not of them seem to fit together right.  Though the plot is almost entirely different, it ends up feeling like a pale imitation of not only the previous Hellboy movies, but of quite a few recent action movies.

**

Now Playing April 2019

Beaten

Shin Megami Tensei 4 Apocalypse – I’ve got a blog post coming soon. The game does a lot of things well, despite never once getting me to care about the plot.

Ongoing

Monster Hunter Generations – I played this some with my brother. The formula is just so perfect. It was also fun to take down some classic monsters that aren’t in Monster Hunter World. I will probably never get to the last dozen or so quests I haven’t beaten, but I more than got my money’s worth.

Dragon Quest 11 – I played a little, but didn’t make any progress. It is still a great game that I plan to finish this Summer.

Disney Afternoon Collection – I very nearly beat Rescue Rangers 2. I have plans to actually do that soon. I’m kind of in the mood for some NES action, so I might follow that up with beating one or more of the DuckTales games or finally giving Darkwing Duck some serious time. All of these games, aside from TaleSpin, are solid NES action games. I don’t think any of them are Capcom at their best, but all of them are worth playing. The collection has a lot of extras; it is a good game.

Upcoming

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey – I really doubt I’m going to have time for much more than that. The new futile project I am switching to is trying to beat all the Shin Megami Tensei games on my backlog. I already finished SMT4A and the second half of Strange Journey is up next. I guess maybe I should add Persona 4 Arena Ultimax to this, because I still have one half of the story mode of that to do as well.

What I Watched March 2019

Movies

Saving Mr. Banks – It is well enough made, though even though the rosy picture of Disney doesn’t really ring true.  Still, it is hard to argue against Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. ***

Behind the Curve – This is a somewhat tragic documentary looking at flat-earthers.  It is tragic because these sad individuals can’t help buy debunk themselves as they try to prove their theories.  It just stinks of societal failure. ***1/2

Triple Frontier – This is another close thing.  It is kind of a strange heist movie.  A bunch of vets get a plan to rob a South American drug lord, but find a lot more money than they expected.  The early part goes faster and smoother than the usual heist movie, but it is followed by a painstaking escape sequence.  It mostly works, but it feels really close to being something actually special. ***1/2

Aliens – Aliens is great, but you already know that. *****

Big Trouble in Little China – Kurt Russell is amazing in this.  His incompetent bravado is just perfect.  Jack Burton is a sidekick, comic relief character that thinks he’s the protagonist.  It is wonderful. *****

Cobra – I did not like this at all.  It is stupid and mean and not particularly exciting.  It feels like Stallone trying too hard. **1/2

Labyrinth – Yup, it is still a delight. ****

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – I didn’t realize how much of a creep Ferris is in this, but that doesn’t really make the movie any less entertaining.  It is a lot of fun. ****1/2

Invaders From Mars – ehh, not for me. **

Hot Rod – This movie deserves to be remembered as a comedy classic.  It is one of my favorite “recent” comedies. It is so great. *****

Captain Marvel – read review here. ****

Dumbo – read review here. **1/2

The Highwaymen – I kind of loved this.  It is unusual to get a movie about the public enemies era that doesn’t sympathize at all with the criminals.  Here, it is all from the point of view of the cops, who struggle to catch Bonnie and Clyde.  I just liked seeing Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson giving old man speeches. ****

The Dirt – Last year, I didn’t much care for Bohemian Rhapsody; it was kind of a badly made movie buoyed by some genuinely great music.  This is the same, but with not nearly as good music. **

TV

Black Lightning – The second season of Black Lightning is over and while I still think the show is great, it kind of feels like this season started getting away from the creators here.  It expanded in scope, but could not quite wrangle that new scope into a coherent season.  I expect some dropped threads to be picked up in the next season, but some stuff, like the stuff about the new racist principal, was either poorly conceived or poorly explained.  Still, I think the show is generally excellent and look forward to next season.

After Life – I don’t have much to say here. This show is bad. It is an unlikable combination of mean and smug.  Gervais has made quality television before, but he has put together quite the string of misses lately.

The Widow – This has a lot in common with Black Earth Rising, though The Widow adds a lot of action thriller stuff to it.  Kate Beckinsale stars as a widow whose husband died in a plane crash.  Only she finds evidence that he might have survived and she heads to Africa to get to the bottom of things.  She stumbles into many hornets nest and learns some terrible truths.  It is solidly entertaining, largely thanks to Beckinsale and Charles Dance, but feels like it would have worked better if trimmed by a couple of episodes.

Pen15 – This show is well made, but it is hard to watch.  It hits close to home, even accounting for the difference in genders between me and the protagonists.  This is a crushingly accurate depiction of being a teenager at around the turn of the century.

Turn Up Charlie – This show should be bad.  It is strange, with Idris Elba playing a washed up, one hit wonder DJ who is desperate to regain his fame who ends up working as a nanny for his famous childhood friend.  It is an odd set up.  But Elba is great and the show is much more charming than it might first appear to be.  It is definitely worth a watch.

Iron Fist S2 – It says a lot about how bad the first season of Iron Fist was that the second season could improve so much and still not really be any good.  This show is just kind of out there in no man’s land.  The tone of the Netflix  Marvel shows was established by Daredevil and the other characters work, to varying degrees, with that tone.  It isn’t the only choice, but that dark, grounded-ish world works for Jessica Jones and Luke Cage and especially The Punisher.  But that it is hard to fit Iron Fist into that mold with its super-powered martial arts masters.  The character needs to be something campier and sillier than the Netflix tone allows for.  This second season pushes things closer that way, but it is still sapping the fun out of Iron Fist instead of forcing the fun onto Netflix.  The big improvement comes from the show realizing how much Danny sucks, and therefore moves a lot of the work off him.  I don’t want to blame it on Finn Jones, who is trying as hard as he can.  But he can’t convincingly fake fight and isn’t helped out by another part of the show to fake it.  In a show that is supposedly about one of the greatest martial artists in the world, him not being able to appear to fight is a problem.  By making him a lovable (or at least potentially lovable) goof, the show is a lot less tedious.  It also cuts things down by about 5 hours, but still manages to have the same ratio of plot to filler, so that isn’t really an improvement.  I intend to get to the rest of Marvel’s Netflix shows, hopefully by the time Jessica Jones hits, but I can’t say I’m sad to see them go.

Arrested Development S5 Part 2 – The word that comes to mind when analyzing this (hopefully) last batch of Arrested Development episodes is timing.  Because the timing of these episodes is terrible.  Timing was one of the strengths of the original run of Arrested Development.  The show just seemed to know when to drop which joke, the actors all seemed to know just how to play off each other.  It was like watching recent Golden State Warriors games. Everything was in sync.  Here, everything just feels mistimed. It spends too long on jokes that don’t work and brushes by good one.  Also, the satire was perfectly poised to deal with the social climate of the early aughts.  However, a lot has changed since then.  This whole season has felt like a once great athlete playing past their prime.  To keep the basketball comparison, it is like watching Jordan on the Wizards.  You can still see what made him special, but it’s not really there anymore.  While it might just be too long since Arrested Development’s heyday for this to really hit.  The huge break between the first half of this season and the second did it no favors.  It loses any momentum it could have built up.  I am going to have to go back and watch the whole season in one go to see if it works better.  I don’t know what to say about this; the show is a pale shadow of one of my all-time favorite shows.  Arrested Development went a long ways in defining my sense of humor.  Stumbling onto the first season was like having everything click in my head, discovering that this is what I like.  But the magic is gone. I’m sad to see this show go, but it really feels like the time.

What I Read in March 2019

I only read one book in March. March was a rough month, even with a week off from law school for spring break in the middle of it. Still, even with finishing only one book this month I am still on pace to read more this year than I have the last two.

The Woman Who Died A Lot

Jasper Fforde

The one book I managed to finish in March was a reread of one of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books.  The last Thursday Next book.  I didn’t forget how incredibly inventive Fforde is, especially in this series but also always, but I did manage to forget nearly the entire plot.  That is unusual for me.  Generally, once I start a reread the detail start to come pretty fast.  I might forget details or even whole characters, but as soon as I start with the book it is all there.  Here, it was like reading it all again for the first time.  I remembered that Thursday was old in this book, and I remembered a few other details, but I didn’t even remember the conceit that got the book its title.

This book is called “The Woman Who Died A Lot” to reference the fact that Thursday keeps getting replaced with synthetic duplicates for reasons that are not clear at first.  Her mind is somehow transferred into this fake version of her.  Unfortunately, these fakes are only designed to live for about a day.  When they die, she returns to her body.  The contrast here is that current Thursday is both getting old and injured.  So she can only really fight back against the evil Goliath Corporation when she is a duplicate.  Over the course of the book, she dies a lot.

I have long since accepted that Jasper Fforde is my favorite author.  I think I accepted that as he went a half decade without publishing a book.  Rereading this book, a perfectly fine but apparently forgettable entry in his signature series reminded me why he is my favorite and reinforced his position.  I am ready for whatever he has next, and until then I guess I’ll reread what I’ve already got.

Shazam! Review

For most people, the DC cinematic universe got started on the wrong foot.  The first two Zack Snyder directed films are controversial to say the least and set a tone that is certainly not to everyone’s taste.  But people seem to be unable to let go of his two and half movies and see what DC has been offering for the last couple of years.  Wonder Woman was one of the best just straightforward superhero movies of the last decade.  Aquaman was a bonkers spectacle that is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.  Shazam continues DC’s trend of making individual movies that play the strengths of the characters, with the unifying feature the sincerity with which they approach things.  Shazam is a pure delight.

Shazam manages to find a new niche in the super hero movie genre.  It feels like a throwback, like the 80’s Amblin version of a superhero movie.  What came to my mind while watching it was Gremlins. Gremlins is a weirdo family horror movie.  This movie is combines a sincere, even touching drama about foster kids with strange magic secrets and some moments of terrifying horror.  It is a unique mix, but one that absolutely works.

Shazam starts with the young Thaddeus Sivana, bullied by his father and older brother, being magically transported to the realm of the wizard Shazam.  Shazam is old and his power is fading.  He is tested to see if he is worthy of the wizard’s power, but succumbs to the temptations of the seven deadly sins, who are monstrous spirits trapped in statues.  Shazam returns Sivana to his horrible family; Sivana then spends the next thirty or so years trying to get back there to get the power he feels he was wrongly denied.  Eventually he does, and the wizard is too weak to stop him from freeing the sins.  The story then shifts to Billy Batson, a troublesome foster kid who is searching for his birth parents.  Knocked around by the system, he doesn’t trust anybody and constantly finds himself in trouble.  At the start of the movie, he is assigned to a group home as sort of his last chance.  After sticking up for one of his foster siblings, he is transported to the wizard.  The wizard is unsure of Billy’s worthiness, but he is out of options and grants Billy the power to turn into the superhero Shazam.  The distrustful Billy must learn how to be a hero before Sivana finds him and wrests the power away.

Shazam feels like something from the 80’s because it is ostensibly a kids movie, but it still features some horrific stuff that is sure to scare kids.  The scenes of Billy and Freddie testing Billy’s new powers are delightful and sure to please children.  But mixed in with those are some scenes of the villains committing terrible crimes or one particularly graphic death.  They are these weird atonal elements that mostly get ironed out of kids movies these days.  There is also the a few genuinely heartbreaking scenes with Billy attempting to track down his mom.  It is this idiosyncratic mix of tones that makes the movie feel fully fleshed out. It also doesn’t feel like an accident, the movie wants to vary the tone.  And the mix just works.

It helps that it has some genuinely charming performances.  The combination of Zachary Levi and Asher Angel as Billy Batson/Shazam is perfect.  They manage to echo each other, making it easy to believe that they are the same person just with different outside appearances.  Jack Dylan Grazer has a perfect mischievous air about him as Freddie Freeman.  The two of them carry the movie, really feeling like a pair of teenagers that stumbled upon superpowers and are pushing the boundaries and seeing what they can do and get away with.  Shazam perfectly juggles teenage irony with a touching, childlike naivety with these two damaged kids figuring things out as best they can.

The movie does spend a little too long on the final confrontation.  It is a scene that seems to go on too long, and that time feels like it could have been better spent fleshing out Billy’s interior journey just a little more.  Still, that is a small complaint in a movie that is otherwise a delight.

Shazam treats the genuinely strange magical backstory of the mythos with admirable sincerity.  Shazam is a concept from the 40’s and it feels like it.  Most often backstories like this get sanded down in the adaptation process, Shazam leans into it, to great effect.  It is just a genuinely charming movie.

*****

Etrian Odyssey Nexus

In a fitting farewell to the DS family of consoles, Atlus has released Etrian Odyssey Nexus. The handheld consoles most consistent series essentially finishes off the console with a greatest hits version of the series. It isn’t the best game in the series, I still waffle between Etrian Odyssey III or Etrian Odyssey IV, but Nexus is a solid summation of the series.

Etrian Odyssey Nexus is essentially the same as the previous Etrian Odyssey games. It is a first person dungeon crawler where the player has a fully customizable party. The player builds their team out of the offered classes to traverse a couple dozen dungeon floors. The concept, as ever, is simple. The execution is generally elegant.

Nexus’s collection of classes is a lot of fun, even if some of them very watered down. Nexus attempts to take the most memorable classes from each game in the series to give the player options that represent all the options they’ve had before. But all of the classes have gone through some revisions to remove the idiosyncrasies from each title. Most made it through pretty well, but some, like EOV’s Pugilist, are shadow’s of their former self. Still, it is hard to not make a really fun party here.

Something is off with the ratio here, though. The game attempts to give you take you through a tour of the previous 5 (or 7, counting remakes) games, so you need to visit all the areas you’ve seen before. But if it did that with full strata, the game would be a hundred floors long. So instead it makes a lot of the early strata only 3 floors long instead of 5 and confines a few of them to one floor mini-dungeons. The problem with this is that each still has a boss at the end of it. So instead of hitting a boss every five floors, it works out to a boss every other floor for the first half of the game. The Etrian Odyssey series has some excellent bosses (all of which get featured in this game), the bosses force a different focus on the player’s party. It isn’t a case, generally, of there being one correct way to beat a boss, but the options for tackling a boss are more constrained than those for exploring the dungeon.

The player is free to craft whatever party they like to get through the dungeons. Not every strategy will work, but there is a ton of freedom in finding a strategy that works for you. I tend to focus on offence, hitting enemies with overwhelming force and beating them before they can do much damage. But it is genuinely just as effect to build a defense heavy team that prevent enemies from doing much damage or a team focused on status effect or binds to shut enemies down. Bosses, though, significantly cut down on viable strategies. And each boss cuts off different strategy. With a handful of floors between bosses, it is possible to make adjustments, where when you fight a boss every other level it is really hard to find space to make those adjustments.

It makes the game more of a slog than it needs to be. Personally, I’ve always preferred exploring the dungeons to fighting the bosses. The bosses were the roadblocks that kept me from the parts of the game I really liked. The somber solitude of exploring the unknown depths of the dungeon is soothing to me. Bosses, while frequently really interesting, get in the way of that. Fighting bosses as often as Nexus puts them in front of the player really mess up the rhythm.

That is a pretty big complaint, and keeps me from even considering this game among the best in the series, but it doesn’t sink the game completely. There is a lot of great exploratory goodness here and the game isn’t quite hard enough to make the bosses that much of a hurdle. And giving every game in the series representation really does make it feel all encompassing for the series. The only thing missing is the Shiren the Wanderer class from Etrian Mystery Dungeon.

There is only one more 3DS game on the horizon. (The Etrian Odyssey/Persona mash-up Persona Q2) Etrian Odyssey Nexus makes for a fitting farewell for the system. Etrian Odyssey has been one of the most consistent series on the DS family of systems. It is up there with Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton in my mind as the games that really made the system. Both of those series have moved on. There have been a lot of other great games on the DS, but there is no series that has been as consistent, good, present as the Etrian Odyssey series. Etrian Odyssey did not make the most innovative use of the secondary touch screen, but it’s use made the most sense. A lot of games put a map on the bottom screen. Etrian Odyssey let the player draw that map. It seems like a small thing, but it really added to the sense of exploration. It is both simple and essential to the appeal. That really showed off the genius of the DS, more so than games that tried to use the touch screen for controls or random tapping.

I am sure the Etrian Odyssey series will continue. Probably on the Switch, maybe on mobile. I am sure I will keep playing the series for the foreseeable future. But this really feels like the end of era. While Etrian Odyssey Nexus is a middling game in the series, it is a worthy way to wrap up this series and the 3DS.

Dumbo

Disney’s animated classic Dumbo is a slim movie, with a runtime just over an hour and few wrinkles to its story.  It feels among the least likely of their animated catalog to merit the full live action remake treatment.  But other than Marvel and Star Wars movies, live action remakes of animated movies is what Disney does these days.  The live action Dumbo clocks in at nearly two hours long and gives almost no one what they wanted to see.  However, the movie is just charming enough to make it hard to hate.

The story of Dumbo is of a big eared baby elephant who learns to fly.  This adaptation adds plot elements from what seems like three other movies to pad it out to full feature length.  There is a story about Colin Farrell’s Holt Farrier, a circus equestrian and WW1 veteran freshly returned from the war.  He lost an arm in the war and his wife died while he was away.  He has to pick himself back up and keep things together for his two kids.  His son exists and that’s about it, but his daughter doesn’t want to follow in her parents footsteps as part of the circus but instead wants to be a scientist.  Holt’s struggles are exacerbated by the fact that while he was gone, the ringleader, Max Medici, sold his horses to keep the circus afloat.  Holt is the center around which the movie revolves, but there isn’t enough done with his struggles to make it the center plank of the movie.  Medici, played by the always delightful Danny Devito, takes up another chunk of the movie dealing with him struggling to keep the circus viable and eventually going into business with the transparently shady V.A. Vandervere.  Vandervere, of course, is only interested in the flying elephant.  The movie introduces a dozen or so characters and a half dozen plots, all because it is unwilling, for good reason, to focus on the spectacle of a flying elephant.

The problem is that Dumbo flying doesn’t look that amazing in live action.  It looked really interesting in traditional animation, but this CGI realistic facsimile inspires little awe.  Really, the movie is missing so much of what makes the original version so entertaining.  The most memorable part of the movie was the Pink Elephants on parade sequence, when Dumbo sneaks some of the circus laborers liquor and has drunken hallucinations of pink elephants on parade.  That scene does not happen in live action movie, but it is replaced with a “realistic” copy that has none of the weird charm, it is merely there to remind you the think you liked in the old movie without actually giving you that thing you liked.

Somehow, though , the movie manages to be charming despite feeling like a mismatched grab-bag of other movies.  A lot of that is thanks to uniformly strong performers being generally very charming.  Devito, Farrell, Eva Green and Michael Keaton are all doing something.  It is fairly enjoyable to watch them.  Each of the four movies that its feels have been Frankensteined together could have been good if fully fleshed out, Dumbo merely gives you glimpses of them. It is not a good movie, but it is somehow charming despite being bad.

**1/2