What I Read October 2018

I managed to finish three books in October; I feel great. And I finished a fourth on the first day of November, so I have a head start on next month. I don’t really have time to search out new books, so I am mostly just finishing up things that are already sitting on my shelf. Hopefully I will get back to my expected pace before too long.

The Poisoned Pilgrim

Oliver Potzsch

This is the fourth Hangman’s Daughter story. This time, Magdalena and her husband Simon are part of a pilgrimage to the monastery at Adenachs. There, a sickness breaks out and Simon is tasked with containing it. At the same time, one of the monks is murdered and the suspect just so happens to be an old friend of Jakob, the hangman. The three of them try to solve the eventually plural murders and the mystery of the spreading illness, they run into mad science that call to mind Frankenstein and The Sandman.

I bought this whole series because Amazon had them for cheap. I keep reading them because they are fine. They have a format I like, being mysteries, and an interesting setting, but I have not found any of them to be particularly good. They are simply fine. I am hesitant to lay that on the author when the books are translated, but word choice problems abound. Maybe Magdalena is as shrill in the original as she comes off here, but it is a bad change for what has mostly been an enjoyable character. The mystery here is mostly fun for how many different ideas pop up, the solving it is actually not especially complex. I’ll read the next one sooner or later.

Napoleon A Life

Andrew Roberts

A thorough and enthralling look at the life of the most interesting man of the last two hundred and fifty or so years. Roberts takes a fairly positive stance on Napoleon without descending in hagiography. It is simply very detailed and attempts to give some perspective on a man of whom there are still wildly divergent opinions nearly two hundred years after he died. I will admit to being something of an admirer myself, and I found this book to be amazing.

The highlights are the battle sections. They are detailed and as honest as can be. It shows how where Napoleon was truly successful, with his pace and catching opponents unawares as well as with concentrating his forces to defeat fractured alliances, but it also is honest about his failures, especially in his later defeats, when Napoleon lost the battles though simple, and in retrospect obvious mistakes.

It also gets into the thorniest matters of Napoleon’s life. Like him giving his brothers crowns and kingdoms only to be met with incompetence and unfaithfulness, though much of that was brought on by Napoleon himself. He did pull back from some of the reforms of the French Revolution, but he also helped bring the country out of the Reign of Terror and the subsequent instability. He set codified laws. He committed massacres in the Middle East. He fought many wars, but started few. Napoleon is a complex figure and this book really lays out all of that complexity. I can’t read it without being at least partly enamored of him, and a little sad that his end was what it was. But I also can not ignore the bad. I really liked how Napoleon: A Life painstakingly showed all of him that it could.

Jhereg

Steven Brust

I read a couple of Steven Brust books over the last year or so and I like them fine, and I feel much the same about this one. I got it for Christmas and just now am getting around to reading it. Its fine. Brust has an aversion to explaining anything about his world. I thought that problem with the first book of his I read was because it was a spin off several books deep in the series. But this first book does little to ease the reader in. It is a small problem, much of what isn’t said can be learned through context, but it is a barrier to really getting into the world. Here, he just doesn’t have the space for it. Jhereg is a fairly tight little heist story. Pages of world explaining exposition would kill the pace. However, certain fundamental facts don’t get mentioned until things are pretty far along. Like the fact that the protagonist is married, for instance. Keeping up with the twists and turns, however, require some knowledge of the rules and the book is reticent to give readers that knowledge. I still mostly enjoyed it; it flowed along pretty quickly and tells a fun story in not a lot of pages. I will likely try to pick up some more books in the series when I have time to read again.

Advertisements

Bohemian Rhapsody

There are times when Bohemian Rhapsody lures the viewer in with its adherence to the rock and roll story formula and the genuinely great music, but it mostly fall flat in its widely varying tone and its twisting of events to fit the desired narrative. It is a largely unsatisfying mix of excellent and dreadful.

Leading up the good side is the performance of Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. He captures the look almost perfectly, as well as the mannerisms during performances. It is an astounding performance that has to be astounding for the movie to work at all. Everyone else is fine. They are perfectly good, but this is Malek’s movie. The only other person who stands out is Mike Myers, who in a bit of stunt casting plays a studio executive that hates Bohemian Rhapsody.

That stunt casting hits on one of the flaws of the movie. Not that Myers is bad, it is in fact great to see him again. But the movie does a lot of little stunt bits. They vary from mildly amusing, like Myers, to frustrating, like the weird focus the movie uses during a hackneyed media appearance meltdown. The movie is just full of these little bits that mostly serve to change the tone for a few minutes in weird ways and distract from the story being told.

That story is another problem, mostly because the movie changes fact to fit a very tired rock and roll story arc. A big part of the last act is the band breaking up, something that never really happened. In the movie they get back together to perform at Live Aid, even though they had really spent most of the year before on a world tour. I will give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt that the framing of Freddie’s sexuality as the root of his problems, that he lost his way by leaving his heterosexual relationship, was an inadvertent implication during the rote rise and fall story they wanted tell. I think part of the problem is focusing on Mercury’s personal life while also trying to keep things PG-13, so the movie has to show what is going on by implication, but it is not very careful about what implications it is giving rise to. I realize the struggle that any biopic has in telling the story within the time allotted, but the telling here feels really sloppy.

What the movie does well, though, is the music. The movie shines when it is showing Queen being Queen; when they are performing or creating music. That is the good stuff, and it feels unfortunately underserved. There could and should have been more of the how they made their music. The movie does have the good sense to end with an extended recreation of Queen’s Live Aid performance, which is enthralling. The making of Bohemian Rhapsody is likewise very entertaining.

That is the problem with Bohemian Rhapsody; quite a few of the pieces are excellent, but the whole is less than satisfying. It stumbles whenever it isn’t directly focusing on the music, which is what everyone came to see. I can’t really recommend anyone go see this, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone either.

**1/2

Now Playing October 2018

Beaten

Yakuza Kiwami 2 – read about it here.

Mega Man 3 – It has been too long since I’ve played this. It is still a great game. I’ve begun to accept that Mega Man 2 is the superior experience. But this is the game I spent all my time with as a kid and this is the Mega Man game that I love. I hadn’t really played it in several years until a few weekends ago. It took a couple of attempts, but I pretty quickly got into a groove and cleared the whole thing. I don’t like the Yellow Devil, but otherwise I love this game.

Super Mario Galaxy – read about it here.

Mercenaries Saga 3 – I bought this as a cheap Final Fantasy Tactics rip off. I got what I paid for. I don’t really mean that as an insult. It plays like FFT on a budget. Everything works just fine, but it feels kind of bare bones and under tested. There is still that baseline enjoyment or moving guys around a little map and using terrain and skills to defeat opponents. However, it lacks FFT’s delightfully breakable job system. The story is roughly on the same level as FFT’s original translation, minus the attempts at grandeur. Mercenaries Saga 3 isn’t a terrible way to spend $8.

Gargoyle’s Quest 2 – This has a well deserved reputation as a minor NES classic. It displays Capcom’s mastery of the system in its later days. (This was a 1992 release, contemporaneous with Sonic 2 and Super Mario Kart) It takes an RPG world map and combines it with fairly unique platforming levels. That uniqueness is largely due to the interesting abilities of Firebrand. It is a game all about managing his hover meter, moving laterally but not on the platforms. The problem with the game is that it requires some jumping with no way of knowing where you are going to land beforehand. That is a complaint, but not a game breaking one. It just leads to some frustrating hits. Otherwise, this game is really, really good.

Costume Quest 2 – I tried to beat five horror or Halloween themed games before the end of October. The first game that jumped to mind when I decided to do that, Costume Quest 2 was the first game to come to mind. I bought it a few years ago around Halloween, but I didn’t end up beating it, mostly because I got it on the WiiU but it doesn’t allow the player to play on the tablet. It is just big screen. Accepting that, I decided to finish up this little adventure. It takes about 6 hours to beat and that is about all the game there is in the premise. It is a pretty basic RPG with characters changing abilities based on which costumes they wear. The costumes allow for quite a bit of customization in the party. The battles, though, play out mostly identically once your party is set. The story if fluff, but largely pretty amusing. This is just a fun little game, enjoyable but easily forgettable.

Spirit Camera – This is a neat little experiment that isn’t much of a game. It uses the 3DS cameras for an AR experience. It comes with a booklet that the game reacts to to create ghosts that can only be seen through the 3DS. It is really neat, putting the player in the role of a survival horror protagonist stuck in a cursed book. It is actually a neat little short story. It is rather short though. It can be beaten in less than three hours. The biggest time sink is getting the camera to actually recognize what it is looking for. You have to play it in excellent light, or the AR scans in the booklet won’t work. It can be truly frustrating. It is an amazing experience; the game does a lot of interesting things with the book and general AR stuff. There just isn’t a lot of there and the illusion is completely broken when it doesn’t work right. Still, it is definitely worth playing.

Ongoing

Suikoden V – I am coming to the end of my revisit of this game. I’ll have one last post about it when I do (I might not expect that for more than a month) but it is turning into a more somber undertaking than I expected. Not because I don’t think the game has held up; it is just as much fun to play as it was when it first came out, but because I am beginning to suspect that this is the last time I will have the time or desire to play this game. Or any similar game.

Earthbound – I got an SNES Classic for Christmas and I haven’t really played it. I mean, I’ve turned it on and sampled nearly all of the games, but I haven’t really sat down and played any of them. I intend Earthbound to be the first, but I only managed to get through the opening.

Lollipop Chainsaw – This was another game I played for a Halloween celebration. It really feels like it wants to be Bayonetta, but the gameplay just isn’t there. It is sloppy and repetitive. The story stuff I might have enjoyed back when this came out half a decade ago, now I can barely tolerate it. Having a boss continuingly yell “slut” at the protagonist is just off putting. I don’t really know if I am going to finish this now that I missed Halloween.

Onimusha 2 – I already beat this once few years back, but I recall it being one of my favorite games if its ilk. I remember being especially intrigued by its branching story paths, built off of a friendship system with a handful of allies. So far I have barely gotten through the first few scenes of the game, which I have enjoyed very much despite the tank controls. The first game is getting–has gotten?– a remaster and I hope they follow up with this one.

Upcoming

Super Mario 3D World – I’ve actually already started, but this will be finished up soon.

Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers – I want to get back to this. I like it a bunch, for all that it still plays like it is twenty years old.

Yakuza 3 – I got distracted by Halloween games, but I’ll come back to this.

Xenoblade Chronicles X – I had a sudden desire to play through the parts of this I didn’t get to before I finished the story, only to have those hopes disappear because my nephew had deleted my save. I have some desire to start from scratch. We’ll see.

What I Watched October 2018

Movies

A Star is Bornread review here. ****1/2

Woman Walks Ahead – an interesting look at the time Catherine Weldon spent with Chief Sitting Bull. Jessica Chastain stars as Weldon, a painter who goes out West to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull while the Native Americans deal with the hostile soldiers and a resurgent religious movement that seems likely to cause renewed hostilities. It is good. ***1/2

Colette – read review here. ****

Game Night – I rented this to watch with my family on my birthday. It played even better the second time. I think this might be a movie I end up coming back to fairly often. ****

The Polka King – another rewatch that remains mostly enjoyable but largely forgettable. ***

Nostalgia – a meditation on death and the things we leave behind, Nostalgia is mostly just a bummer. It doesn’t really have anything interesting or profound to say as it moves from one grieving family to another, but neither is it completely without worth. It just sort of is. **

Venomread review here. **

Beirut – This is just a straight thriller. Jon Hamm stars as a former negotiator and broken man who is called back into service when an old friend is kidnapped in Beirut and the kidnappers specifically ask for him to broker the deal to get him back. So he must move between the machinations of the US Intelligence apparatus, the Israelis and different Palestinian groups to save his friend. There is is little fat, just an immensely entertaining thriller. ****

The Land of Steady Habits – Eternal villain Ben Mendelsohn stars a recently divorced man trying to navigate his new life. He struggles to find his new place and with seeing his wife successfully moving on. He forges a bond with the child of some old friends who is going through his own struggles. It mostly works. ***

Bad Times at the El Royale – read review here. ****1/2

King Lear – A BBC produced adaptation of the Shakespeare play, set in modern times but using the actual dialogue. It works. A big part of its success is the quality of the actors, which starting with Anthony Hopkins as Lear is just uniformly excellent. The contemporary setting does just enough make this still excellent drama feel fresh. ****

TV
The League – This showed up on Hulu and remains frustrating. It is occasionally very funny, but just as often is just mean spirited and gross. I don’t really have much to say about it. It accurately shows how groups of friends treat each other, except these guys are actually funny, but it highlights some really gross behavior for jokes. And I don’t mean the poop jokes. It’s fine, whatever.

Maniac – This show warrants a more in depth review. Emma Stone and Jonah Hill star was two subjects of a clinical study for a pill that is attempting to replace therapy. There is a lot going on here. It is set in a near future that is not unlike the dingy, Asian-influenced setting of Blade Runner. It does some Inception-like tricks with how it deals with the mind bending segments. It also plays out each of the characters drug induced delusions as separate genre movies. There are so many moving pieces that it is a wonder that most of them work so well. The center of the show is the development of Hill and Stone’s characters. Hill’s Owen has mental health problems and feels like an outcast from his family. Stone’s Annie is similarly estranged from her family. Together they each start to move forward with their problems as the study goes along, but not necessarily because of the study. It is just really interesting.

Luke Cage S2 – This is certainly a Netflix Marvel show, with all the strengths and flaws of the rest of them. It is 13 episodes that contain roughly 8 episodes worth of stories. The actors are good, the writing is not. I don’t know when I’ll get to Iron Fist S2 or Daredevil S3.

Ozark S2 – This show continues to play something like Breaking Bad on triple speed. This show burns through plot, with each episode holding enough for a half of a season of a slower show. But it remains completely watchable. Marty and Wendy are each breaking under the strain of trying to avoid being the target of various crime families, but in opposite directions. Honestly though, the struggles of the Langmore clan is the more interesting story that I wish would get more attention.

The Romanoffs – I still don’t know what the point of this anthology series is. So far it is a handful of mediocre movie length episodes with no connection or unifying theme. Each episode is sumptuously produced, directed and acted, but also the are disappointingly empty. It is just good enough that I am going to keep watching.

Superhero Shows – The CW stuff has gotten off to a strong start. Supergirl is tilting political in a satisfying way, Legends of Tomorrow is building on the goofy confidence it built up last season and Black Lightning remains the serious, genuinely excellent cousin. The odd man out is The Flash (ignoring Arrow because I checked out last season and haven’t caught up). Not that this season of The Flash has been bad, so far it has been pretty strong, but that it is sort of in the middle of the rest of them, the straight man for all of the other shows to play as permutations of, but also somewhat robbing The Flash of its own identity.

Yakuza Kiwami

Immediately after I finished Yakuza 0, I popped Yakuza Kiwami into my PS4. I had played the original Yakuza back in the day on my PS2, but other than the basics of the story and vague recollections of greatly enjoying it, I didn’t remember much. Going off those memories, Yakuza Kiwami is something of an ideal remake. It keeps the core of the experience intact while updating and fleshing it out and embellishing things.

The story of Yakuza benefits greatly from the context added both by the remake and by Yakuza 0. The story here is probably the simplest that the series has ever been, but it also felt a little lacking. Kiryu takes the blame after his sworn brother Nishiki kills their boss when he tried to rape Kiryu’s, and Nishiki’s, love interest Yumi. Kiryu is released from a ten year prison sentence, excommunicated from his Yakuza clan and finds out that Nishiki has risen far in the organization and become corrupt. So Kiryu tries to get re-acclimated to life outside of prison, he gets caught in plots and counterplots that threaten to tear the Tojo Clan apart. What didn’t really work before was the connection between Nishiki and Kiryu. The original told you how close Kiryu and Nishiki were, but it never really showed that. That problem is exacerbated by the game keeping Nishiki off the screen for almost the entire game. Yakuza Kiwami adds more the start (I think; I don’t remember the first few scenes) and interstitials scenes showing Nishiki’s development while Kiryu was away. Those, combined with the added context from Yakuza 0, work to make the connection between Nishiki and Kiryu believable. It makes more sense that Kiryu wants to reconnect with him despite all he sees and hears. It is still disappointing that two of the most important characters in the game, Nishiki and Yumi, get very little time on screen.

This game is clearly built on the same engine as Yakuza 0. It keeps the same array of fighting styles as that game, with Kiryu having three general fighting styles and one special one that is all but unusable until the end game. It all feels the same as the previous game, which is not a complaint. Both games are a lot of fun.

One of the biggest new change is the addition of the Majima everywhere system. Majima was a relatively small player in the first Yakuza, a memorable character, but not one that has a whole lot of plot significance. Since then, he’s evolved into one of the more loved characters in the series, up to his costarring role in Yakuza 0. To give him more to do here, Kiwami added Majima everywhere. With Majima everywhere, Majima takes it on himself to get Kiryu back into fighting shape after his prison stint by randomly fighting him all over town. With each encounter, or a set number of encounters, Kiryu traditional Dragon style is powered up. It is less annoying than it seems, at least initially. Majima uses all four of his fighting styles from Yakuza 0, so it isn’t the same fight over and over. He also trots out a series of costumes and hiding places to keep things interesting. And it works, at least until near the end of the game, when you’ve seen just about everything he has to offer and are trying to trigger specific encounters to finish upgrading the Dragon style. I don’t think the reward system for it was a good idea, since major parts of Majima Everywhere are locked behind story stuff, meaning Kiryu’s main style can’t effectively be used for most of the game.

Yakuza Kiwami is mostly just more of that Yakuza goodness. The game somehow manages the melodrama of the main plot with tons of inconsequential and downright goofy substories. Kiryu is a gangster with a remarkable aversion to actually do crimes, other than assault. Something new I noticed is how much this game draws from Battles Without Honor or Humanity, an excellent series of movies about the yakuza. The title is even referenced in a chapter title. The first movie starts with the forming of a yakuza clan in the aftermath of WWII as the rise and splinter and fall. A big part of that is one of the characters going to jail for a few years, only to get out and find all of his old friends either dead or changed. It takes up about a half hour in the movie, but it is essentially the same set up as Yakuza Kiwami.

Yakuza Kiwami is good. Newcomers to the series can start either here or with Yakuza 0 and miss nothing. I’ve recently beaten 0 and 1, and I’ve got Kiwami 2 and 6 on deck. I think I might take a trip through the whole series before finishing up with Kiryu’s grand farewell in Yakuza 6. Mostly because my Mario replay is wrapping up and I need a new project to fail to complete.

Colette

Colette is a biopic about the French author of the same name. It details her early life through her marriage, when she wrote the Claudine stories. It details her growth from a sheltered young girl to an accomplished writer and performer.

Colette stars Keira Knightley as Colette and Dominic West as her husband Willy. She is a young girl from the country; she met Willy through their parents. Even from the start there is something off about the marriage. She is significantly younger than him, and when they start making a home in Paris his friends are incredulous and he almost immediately begins, or continues, affairs. Willy, a member of avant garde artistic circles, has set himself up as a literary brand, without appearing to do any of the writing himself. Unfortunately, his expenses such as his mistresses, exceed his income. Eventually he presses Colette into writing for him and she turns in what becomes the most successful book published under his name, as well as several equally popular sequels.

There is an interesting give and take between Colette and Willy. At first he is the worldly teacher, introducing her to his literary, libertine set and setting the rules for their relationship. He can have affairs and he doesn’t mind if she does, so long as it is with other women. In private he praises her work on the Claudine books, but is sure to keep up the appearances that he is the one who wrote them. Soon, however, Colette outgrows him. She is the talented writer, he is just the name on the book. Rumors swirl about her role in the writing, but Willy remains the credited author, framing his success as their success, though it is truly her’s alone. When he stifles her and refuses to grant her the credit she deserves, she refuses to write for him, instead taking up dance. She also start a relationship with the gender-fluid Missy, whose masculine presentation skirts her unfaithful husband edicts.

Colette’s story is one of perseverance, of growth and change. Willy’s is one of stagnation. Instead of giving Colette the little she is asking for, credit for her work the biggest thing, he grips it so fiercely out of fear of losing anything that he loses Colette completely. The movie gets you to believe that that the two of them truly loved each other for quite some time. That their relationship was fruitful for both of them, but with each turn Willy shows his smallness more and more, up until the final betrayal.

Colette’s life continued long after the time frame of this movie, but this movie does a great job of showing this chapter of her life, of her going from a wide eyed farm girl to an experienced and worldly woman and celebrated author. The strong performances of Knightley and West really make this movie work, first as a simple romance, then a tragic one and then finally the story of her ascension.

****

Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale is a lot of fun. Perhaps a touch too long and lacking the punch it needed to push it over the top, but still it is mostly a ton of fun to watch as it goes along. It ends up feeling a touch like a discount Tarantino movie, but that is still better than most movies.

The El Royale is a hotel that sits on the state line between California and Nevada. Half of the hotel is in one state and one half in the other; the hotel concierge has an extended presentation on the set up. One night, four guests arrive at the El Royale; salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan(Jon Hamm), priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), singer Darlene Sweet(Cynthia Erivo), and the abrasive Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). Each of them has their own story and the movie shows each story in sequence, but they all happen simultaneously. All of them have secrets. Even the hotel and its concierge have secrets. All of them smash together and none of the guests leave unscathed.

Seeing all of these separate stories come together is the fun of the movie. Two of the characters are not who they say they are, two are hiding dangerous secrets. Poor Darlene is just trying to find a quiet place to practice for a gig she has the next morning. One character’s secret brings the dangerous Billy Lee, a Charles Manson-like figure who runs something of cult. None of the stories naturally intersect; the characters could have easily shown up on different days and been in and out with no trouble.

The problem is that the movie sets up all these interesting characters and stories, but ends up cutting off some interesting avenues early. I don’t mean to critique what I wish the movie was and not what it is, but I would have liked to see more of at least one or two characters that end up dead fairly early in the film. Other stories get disappointingly anticlimactic conclusions. That is also kind of the point, but in the end it leaves the movie feeling like it lacks a little punch.

Even minor characters make an impact thanks to the cast. Nick Offerman plays a character who dies during the opening credits, but he still makes an impact. The same goes for Shea Whigham as a prison doctor in a scene or two. The big one is Chris Hemsworth, who shows up in the back half as Billy Lee and infuses him with an unforgettable dangerous swagger. The main cast is great as well. Hamm has a special amount of smarm as the unctuous Laramie. Bridges is his usual excellence. The relative newcomers Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman, who plays the concierge Miles, are highlights of the movie; they are the heart. Cynthia’s Darlene is determined despite all the crap that her life has flung at her, and is also capable of thinking on her feet; she is no damsel or rube to be taken in by the various characters. Miles is that sort of rube; he buys it all. He seems pathetic and things proceed to get worse and worse for him, but he never loses the kindness that he alone seems to possess.

Most of this movie is delightful, but there is a little something that is missing. It reminds me of the Hateful Eight, which also sees a group of unrelated people thrown together with deadly results. But that movie has some surprises in the last act that ramp up the drama. This movie spends most of its surprised early and at the end it plays out just like it seems like it will. It just doesn’t quite stick the landing at the end of an otherwise very entertaining film.

****1/2

Super Mario Replay: Super Mario Galaxy

Yeah, I’m still doing this. It has been some time, and I might not be able to finish for some time thanks to the remaining games providing difficulty, but I am still going. Mario’s first appearance on the Wii hit me like a truck with an incredible combination of nostalgia and wonder that re-solidified it as one of my favorite all time games.

This is the game that really got me into Mario. I don’t mean that I didn’t like Mario games before Galaxy, but I never really thought about them or considered myself a Mario fan. One of my earliest memories is of “helping” my Dad play Super Mario Bros. By the time I was old enough to really play games, even Mario 3 was kind of old hat. Otherwise I was a late adopter and Mario games tended to hit early in a system’s life. I bought Chrono Trigger with my SNES, Mario World was already nearly five years old. My N64 came with Jet Force Gemini. Mario games were always just kind of there. Super Mario Galaxy changed that. I bought a Wii to play Super Mario Galaxy. I was in college with time and just enough money to get a new system. I considered the PS3 and 360, but I was mostly spending my gaming time on the DS (I put 300+ hours into Pokemon Pearl) and playing PS2 games I missed because I was a late adopter. But then I saw videos of Mario Galaxy and it was just something I had to play. It and Smash Bros. Brawl made acquiring a Wii a necessity. I never regretted it.

Super Mario Galaxy feels like a revelation despite being an obvious evolution of what came before. The first three 3D Marios follow the same pattern as the the 2D games. The first established how the games work, the next did something very different and then the third came back and perfected the first game. Super Mario Galaxy is definitely the Super Mario Bros. 3 to Super Mario 64’s Super Mario Bros. It plays in large the same, but features more, smaller levels and more adventurous power ups.

The most striking thing about the same is the feeling of unbridled creativity. You can beat the game with the only truly repeated challenges being the mandatory Bowser fights. One level you are running atop a rolling ball controlled with the Wii remote’s accelerometer. The next is a standard Mario level. Then a level with the new Bee Mario power up. And then Mario gets stuck in a bubble and you have to use wind to blow him through some obstacles. The most amazing thing is that nearly all of these different things work and work perfectly. The only one that doesn’t work is the motion controlled manta ray surfing, which is frustrating both (?) times it shows up. Everything else is just perfection.

The game also nails the presentation. I know its low def and on the underpowered Wii, but Super Mario Galaxy still looks good. It is vibrant and cartoony. Everything just looks right. The music is unassailable; boisterous and jazzy and perfectly fitting. The presentation helps make it so easy to just disappear into this game; to sit in it and lose full days as you collect star after star. That is something that few games can do, especially now that I am an adult. It is comforting. Super Mario Galaxy is damn near perfect.

I would hop right on Super Mario Galaxy 2, but I think I loaned it to my brother, so I’ll have to track that down. I do have Super Mario 3D World, so I might start that up sooner rather than later. It depends on how quickly I can track down Galaxy 2. I still need to track down a working copy of New Super Mario Bros Wii so I can get that one. Lastly, I have Super Mario Sunshine, but I don’t currently have a working Wii or Gamecube. It looks like that is going to be the last game I finish. If I finish this; when I started I intended to end with the release of Super Mario Odyssey, playing that game on my brand new Switch. Which I still don’t have.

What I Read September 2018

I’m back in school and back to only completing one book a month. I can almost guarantee to at least double this output in October; I’ve already finished one book and I am very close to finishing one that has been on my slate for more than three months now.

A Deadly Shade of Gold

John MacDonald

This is the end of my MacDonald foray, probably forever. I didn’t like this much at all. It is a too long thriller that just cements my opinion about MacDonald and his inability to write women as people.

A Deadly Shade of Gold starts the same way that the other McGee book I read did, an old friend of McGee shows up and asks for help. Shortly thereafter, that friend ends up dead and McGee ends up an a quest solve the mystery of his friend’s death and possibly avenge him. The trappings of this one are so much more interesting than what it eventually becomes. His friend had a collection of golden Aztec statues that he either found or stole. McGee has one of them, but someone took the rest. Together with his friend’s ex he goes on a search that takes him to Mexico and California and deals with the Cuban Revolution. Too bad none of it is interesting.

Again, the portrayal of women is a big problem. McGee first seduces (I guess, I really don’t understand the dynamics of that scene) an art dealer to get a lead on the where the statues came from. Later, he does the same to get the use of a house in Los Angeles. There are plenty of other examples as well. It isn’t the fact of his seduction, but they play out like the most egregious scenes from Bond stories. McGee bullies and condescends, which women apparently find irresistible, even as McGee judges them for succumbing to his … charms. Each instance is off putting, the cumulative effective is pretty gross. I don’t know that I would be complaining if there was something else to focus on, but there really isn’t anything else here. It is kind of a bog standard thriller. The only remarkable part of the book is the remarkable sexism. I am out on John MacDonald.

What I Watched September 2018

Movies
Year One – I saw this in the theater and kind of hated it. When I saw it pop up on Netflix, I felt compelled to watch it again. I didn’t hate it this time, though it is still more miss than hit. Really, it is trying way too hard to land ineffective gross out humor and neglecting the parts that actually kind of work. Year One is not good and there is no reason to watch it, but it isn’t the worst. **

Terminal – Reviews I saw for this were savage. Being a fan of Simon Pegg, Mike Myers and increasingly Margot Robbie, I started it up pretty quickly once I could do so for free. Terminal kind of exists in this weird no man’s land. The setting is odd, with not quite enough detail to inform the viewer of the nature of the movie’s reality. Still, there is a lot to enjoy in each of the scenes. It builds on a strange elliptical orbit, approaching its eventual reveals from an uneven trajectory. But those reveals mostly work. The ending is bonkers, but it all kind of works together. I enjoyed this. ***

Operation Finale – read review here. ****

Next Gen – An animated movie that is essentially a kind of Mega Man or Astro Boy story that is largely enjoyable even when it gets surprisingly dark at the end. And it does get pretty dark, especially for what is ostensibly a kids movie. It is worth a watch. ***

The House With a Clock in the Walls – read review here. ***1/2

A Simple Favor – read review here. ****

The Hurricane Heist – I think I love this movie. By almost any measure it is not good, but it is supremely entertaining. It starts with nonsense and just piles more and more on. I was entranced. ***

Dallas Buyers Club – Man, I really did not have the energy for this. It is a based on a true story look at trying to get medication for HIV/AIDS in the 80s and 90s. The movie won awards a few years back, probably deservedly. I can recognize the craftsmanship even as I found the movie exhausting. ****

The Power of Greyskull – A perfectly find documentary about the creation of the He-Man line of toys, of its rise to prominence and its swift downfall. It is more information than anyone likely needs about He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, but I still enjoyed watching it. ***

TV
Jack Ryan – I like John Krasinski. This show has really solid production values. It also has a lot of narrative missteps and is somewhere between off and off putting tonally. I find the problems I have with this show harder to forget because of how well made it is, which makes me think the stuff I don’t like is in there intentionally. Because I have no idea what is supposed to be going on with the whole drone operator subplot, but I didn’t like any of it. The show is fine, often very good, but I don’t think the season’s story was up to par.

American Vandal S2 – This is the front runner for the best show of the year. I loved the first season of American Vandal and the second season might be even better. This season deals with a new vandalism related crime and the the crew from the first season makes another true crime documentary. The combination of the super-serious true crime set up with the ultimately very high school antics that are very much not serious. At the start, at least. Pretty quickly, there is a turn, where the show reveals the deeper issues and anxieties within its characters. And it works perfectly. It remains funny, while also adding a layer of sadness and tragedy to the whole affair. While the filmmakers play less of a role this season, the subjects of the documentary are more complex than last year’s Dylan. Which is say something, because Dylan was eventually revealed as a pretty layered character. This show is just amazing. I hope Netflix never stops making it.

The Good Cop – This should have been an easy win for Netflix. The creator of Monk making a detective show. There really isn’t anything new to making a detective show. The Good Cop flubs it completely, ending up in an incredibly unsatisfying middle ground between Law and Order and Monk. It has the goofy, mystery show feel, but the mysteries are decidedly lacking. Characters talk about the main character’s detecting abilities, but he never really displays them. Even a somewhat disinterested viewer will likely figure things out before he does. It isn’t like the actors are doing a bad job. There really is no reason for Tony Danza’s Big Tony to be there, but he seems like he is having fun with the role. Josh Groban works as little Tony and the rest of the cast is solid. It is just the writing, and in some places the concept, lets them down. It is really not a good show.