Kubo and the Two Strings

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Kubo and the Two Strings is Laika’s best film to date. It eschews the horror theme of their previous films for more of a fairy tale and it completely enchanting. Kubo doesn’t do anything particularly special with the broad strokes; a young boy goes on a quest, but it combines absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful animation with some rather heartfelt moments of love and loss. It is easily the best animated film of the year and one of the best movies of the summer.

The movie starts with young one-eyed Kubo caring for his near catatonic mother and putting on a show in the small town where he lives that combines origami with music and magic. He tells a story of a brave samurai who must retrieve three treasures but he always stops before the ending in order to get back home before nightfall. His mother has a few moments of lucidity as the moon first comes out, telling Kubo stories of his heroic samurai father before drifting back into nothingness. Her admonishments to avoid being out at night are quickly discarded, bringing his aunts along to try to steal his other eye. That sets in motion Kubo’s own quest aided only by a monkey, an origami samurai and a beetle man.

Kubo’s quest to retrieve a magical sword, armor and helmet lead him through the movies astonishing set pieces. They fight a giant skeleton with numerous swords protruding from its skull and a horde of hypnotic submarine eyeballs; all while being hounded by his unearthly witch aunts. Along the way, Kubo learns more about his family and what happened to parents. Eventually, Kubo is forced to confront his eye stealing grandfather, the Moon King. Each location and encounter is amazing. Laika has really outdone themselves this time, with the sweeping scope of some of the epic fights.

The story, the emotional details of which are being purposefully omitted, is carried by a strong voice cast. Charlize Theron voices Monkey, whose stern no-nonsense outlook keeps the ragtag group on task. On the opposite side is Matthew McConaughey as Beetle, who is a charmingly forgetful goofball that adds some fun to the serious proceedings. Art Parkinson plays Kubo with a convincing mix of enthusiasm and longing. However, if there is one place the movie falters, it is in the forced humor of some the Beetle and Monkey scenes. They work from a character standpoint, but the humor falls woefully flat. That is no fault of the voice actors, merely a failing in the dialogue. The rest of the cast, from Ralph Fiennes to George Takei, does good work as well.

What Laika has done in animating this is breathtaking. It is impossible to overstate how good this movie looks. Not that their previous efforts, employing the same eerie stop-motion techniques, were lacking but Kubo and the Two Strings scales things up to epic heights. The most impressive scene is likely the sword fight between one of the Aunts and Monkey on a ship made of fallen leaves as it breaks apart in a rain storm. Or maybe it is the fight against the giant, fire-eyed skeleton. Or maybe the climactic show down. Just as effective are the smaller moments, like Kubo brushing his inert mother’s hair out of her eyes.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a delight in every way. It looks great and all of the emotional moments hit. I have complained repeatedly about how disappointing the movies this summer have been but at least the season is going out on a high note.

****1/2

Bravely Second: End Layer

A couple of years ago, I was wowed by Bravely Default, at least at the start. By the end I was pretty darn sick of it. The problems I pointed to in my review were pacing and balance, but I had others. The characters varied from grating to nonexistent and the plot ran about 2 chapters too far. Bravely Second, a game built on the bones of its predecessor, manages to fix all of those problems. I started out being somewhat underwhelmed with it, mostly due to how sick I still was of the end of Bravely Default, but by the time I finished it up I would rank it as one of the best RPGs on the 3DS. Bravely Second is a complete delight.

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There are so many small ways this game improves on its predecessor, starting with the characters. The party in BD consisted of Agnes, a completely generic female JRPG lead. She wasn’t bad, but she was exactly in the mold that has been used for that character since Rosa in FFIV. It had Tiz, a blank slate protagonist, and Edea, a hot headed defector the party’s team. Finally, there was Ringabel, a loveable rapscallion with a mysterious past. By the end of the game, Ringabel’s increasingly unfunny antics started to dominate the moments of levity. In Bravely Second, only Tiz and Edea return to the main party. Edea hasn’t changed, and didn’t need to. Tiz’s lack of personality has transformed with his demotion from protagonist to something of a laconic cool. He is now as close as this game gets to a silent badass. Joining the party are Yew, a wide eyed optimist suffused with bland enthusiasm, and Magnolia, who starts the same as Agnes as a sort of generic JRPG leading lady, but her quest is for revenge not activating mystical doohickeys. Agnes still has a prominent role as support, and it is a role that suits her well. Ringabel is held to a thankfully brief – and optional – cameo. The group in Bravely Second is more interesting and has a better rapport. The comic relief is split more evenly around the four party members and everyone comes off as fun instead of grating.

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The other characters, generally some sort of twisted embodiment of their class (inherited through an asterisk that bestows that class and its abilities on the player), were often interesting if underutilized. Except for Yulyana, who was neither interesting nor underutilized. In Bravely Second, the returning original asterisk holders have been given a slightly softened outlook. They are still kind of awful, but usually in a more comical than diabolical way. The new ones are split between plot centric ones with full characters and new toss off characters. Still, they managed to keep most of the good ones from the previous game and took a crack replacing the ones that didn’t work with new attempts, with some success. Like most of the game, BS’s characters are an improved revision of the first’s.

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The pacing and balance are much improved as well. No longer can you pick a strategy in the first 10 hours and use it for the rest of the game with total success. While I did attempt to experiment in the first game, it didn’t often feel rewarding. It was just as effective to stick with one or two strategies. Bravely Second’s classes dole out their effective skills a little slower, making it harder to find the perfect strategy and stick with it. Plus, the bosses do a better job of changing tactic to force the player to do the same. The game also moves at a snappier pace, with fewer bosses in each area. It is a revisit of all of Bravely Defaults haunts, but with new sights and new missions. Then there is the central conceit of the game, with the New Game+ being necessary to get the true ending. BD forced the player to run through the game several times to get to the real ending. BS has a one time trick that opens up two fully new chapters. The last half of BD was a slog, because the game was fully explored and you just had to keep doing it. BS wisely held some stuff back for the second run through.

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Bravely Second takes a good game and fixes almost all of its faults, turning a flawed yet fun experience into what should be regarded as a classic.

7th Dragon III: Gibberish Subtitle

As I’ve said before, I was interested in 7th Dragon because of its connections, as loose as they may be, to Etrian Odyssey. It didn’t turn out to be a terribly choice, though in the end it really reinforced how great the Etrian Odyssey series is. 7th Dragon III: Code VFD doesn’t stand up to the quality of any of the Etrian Odyssey games on the 3DS, but it is a fairly entertaining game in its own right. While it has plenty of new things to offer, it feels in some ways like a glorious throwback to the low-poly days of the PS1. That is admittedly a flavor that is pretty common on the 3DS, but as someone who was 12-16 in the glory days of the PS1 it is just my sort of flavor.

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Really, the game is different enough from the EO series that the comparison really isn’t fair. Outside of some larger similarities, they are really two very different kinds of games. They do both feature a player generated party and things like strong monster visible on the field, but the focus of the games is very different. Etrian Odyssey games are highly focused experiences. They are about the player’s specific party and confounding labyrinthine dungeons. There is a reason that mapping the floor is a vital aspect of the series. Exploring and knowing the terrain is a significant portion of the experience. While you do build your own party in 7th Dragon, the dungeons tend to be afterthoughts. They are mostly just corridors connecting one set of cutscenes to another. They look nice enough, but there is little interesting about the dungeons themselves.

The party building is robust, but thanks to it refreshing array of interesting and unique classes, wrapping your brain around how each class works and interacts takes a long time. Honestly, the classes are individually powerful enough and the bulk of the game easy enough that mastering the party building isn’t remotely necessary. There are a few “normal” classes, like the Samurai and the Mage, but most of them fall into fairly interesting new territory, even if the game doesn’t always do a great job of exploring that new territory. Take the God Hand class, for example. The God Hand is essentially a Monk, with a combination of healing skills and fist based attacks, but in 7th Dragon they added a twist. Using the class’s punch skills inflicts God Depth on an enemy, the higher the rank of God Depth the more powerful attacks you can use, which in turn raises the God Depth more until it resets or you use the powerful finishing blow that resets it. It is a neat mechanic and God Hands, in my experience, are one of the most powerful classes in the game. Also, their default look is Maids and Butlers, which is amusing to me. However, no other class interacts with the God Depth mechanic. It exists just for that class, just like hacking exists for the hackers. The game piles on unique and fiddly mechanics to go with its unique and fiddly classes. There is a lot good and interesting there, but it feels like a rough draft of what could have been a great set of classes.

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Much of the enjoyment of 7th Dragon III is in its delightfully bonkers story. You start as a character playing a VR video game about killing dragons, but you are so good at it that the mystery corporation that makes the game recruits you to time travel to several spots in history and fight dragons. You are not, however, doing so to rewrite history and save people from dragons, though you end up doing that, but merely to kill the dragons and get DNA samples. That is to be uses, somehow, to compile a compendium of dragons to better fight the coming 7th True Dragon. Each of the 3 time periods have its own attractions, from ancient Atlantis to a future Medieval Age that somehow exists even though the end of time is fast approaching the ravaged current Tokyo. There are strange delights everywhere, much of it originating with the player’s party. When confronted with the destruction of Atlantis, the protagonist just calmly forces shady corporation Nodens to relocate all the Atlanteans through the time portal to the current day. One sidequest has the player building a cat sanctuary; another has you tracking down a real life power ranger. It is all nonsense, held together by spurious logic and borderline nonsensical twists that quickly twist again before you unravel exactly what the twist is supposed to mean.

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7th Dragon III: Code VFD is kind of a mess, but it is a completely enjoyable mess. There is enough good that comes from the team and character building, as well as the story and battle system that it is easy to just keep playing until the game ends. But once you put it down and look at it critically, all the flaws are glaringly apparent. This is not a great game, but it is a game whose flaws are never deal breakers. It is just delightfully messy, the perfect sort of RPG for a breezy summer playthrough; fun while it lasts but soon forgotten.

25 Years 25 Games 13: Illusion of Gaia

This is exactly the sort of game I was hoping to come across in my deep dive into the SNES library. This is the sort of game that made the SNES’s reputation. From the big colorful graphics and distinctive sound to the sprawling yet abrupt plotline, this game is vintage SNES. And I loved every second of it. I don’t know that it ranks up in the upper echelon of SNES games, next to A Link to the Past or Chrono Trigger, but at worst it goes on that next step down. Illusion of Gaia is a game that wears its heart on its sleeve, one that aches to instill strong emotions into the player. It occasionally achieves that in its own melodramatic way.

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Essentially, Illusion of Gaia is a Zelda game with all the exploration removed. And all of the tools. It is very simplified compared to A Link to the Past. You play as Will, a young boy with slight psychic abilities and a flute. He can hit things with the flute and spin it around to pull certain objects toward him. He eventually gains other abilities, like a slide and dash attack, but his repertoire stays pretty limited. The other big skill is his ability, at save points, to turn into Freedan, a dark knight who is stronger and tougher than Will. He too gets a few abilities, like a ranged attack, but they play mostly the same. At the very end you get a third form that hits very hard and you get too late to really do anything with. Most of the game is spent switching from Will to Freedan whenever appropriate. Luckily, the dungeons themselves shine. They get to be sprawling mazes that don’t so much have puzzles as just navigation difficulties. It is supremely satisfying, especially combined with the game’s progression mechanic.

In Illusion of Gaia, the player gets stronger, for the most part as there are a few other stat upgrades to be found, by defeating every enemy in a room. That gives a bump to the player’s HP, Attack or Defense. Since enemies don’t respawn, each dungeon sees the player slowly but surely eradicating every enemy to get all of the possible stat increases. It is an addictive, though occasionally tedious, system. As good as the gameplay is, this game would still be something of an also ran if it wasn’t for the real heart of the game, and that is its world spanning story.

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Illusion of Gaia doesn’t have the greatest or most nuanced plot of all time, but its sheer abrupt melodrama is hard to match. It opens with Will meeting a Princess and soon a globe-trotting adventure unfurls. Will is the player character, but he is joined for most of the quest by Kara the Princess, a trio of his school friends named Lance, Eric and Seth, fairy-ish girl Lilly and Will’s cousin Neil. That is quite the big troupe, especially considering that Will does all the work. Still, each town and area allows each of these character’s story to develop a little further. Kara starts out spoiled and impulsive, but by the end of the game she is slightly less spoiled and impulsive. Lilly helps the most early on, using her magic powers to turn into a dandelion and help Will out. When the team is separated by a shipwreck, she tends to Lance, who develops amnesia. Eric, the youngest member of the group tends to stumble into trouble frequently. And Neil makes tools of various efficacy. Sometimes he his plane flies you to your destination, sometimes it crashes into the ocean. The game constantly throws unspeakable tragedies at the player, and the team just bucks up and keeps going, for the most part.

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The only thing really holding the story back is the localization, which if I was feeling generous I would call passable. It is hard for story beats to have the proper impact when they aren’t incomprehensible. I would Seth as an example, if I had a clue about what happened to him. When the team is shipwrecked, he is eaten by the leviathan named Riverson. Only he then becomes Riverson? And later he is dead so his spirit helps the team out? I really don’t know what happened to him. Still enough of it comes through to give the game an overwhelmingly melancholic feel. You find a golden Incan ship, with the skeletons of the Incans trapped inside waiting for their king to return. There is a constant thread of people from everywhere you visit being forced into slavery (but your cousin Neil’s parents apparently). At one point you need to get some animals to travel through the desert, so you play a game like Russian roulette in order to get them. Only it turns out your opponent needed the money to make a new life for him and his pregnant wife. The whole game is full of stuff like that.

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The main plot has to do with a comet possessed by a dark force that is making everyone act strange. It is getting closer to Earth, and only Will can help repel this evil force. It is more weird than interesting. But there is an air of hope throughout all the tragedy. It makes the game something of delight to play. There is nothing to do but keep forging forward. This is exactly the kind of game that I hoped to find playing all these old SNES games. What is sad is that I bought this game at a garage sale more than a decade ago. I should have played this game years ago. Now that I beat it I am very disappointed in myself for not having done so.

The DC Rebirth Round Up Month 2

DC’s second month of Rebirth titles was not quite as gripping as the first month. This slow rollout of titles is certainly a better plan than dumping all the new titles out at once like they did with the New 52. This gives smaller titles a chance to catch an audience and DC a chance to see how some things play out before tossing everything out there. Still, for the most part the second month’s worth of books are big titles. Another Green Lantern book, secondary Batman titles like Batgirl and Nightwing, and big gun Justice League. Hellblazer is clearly a title DC has an interesting publishing, and somehow Red Hood keeps coming out even though the only time it was remotely interesting was when Kenneth Rocafort was giving it distinctly styled art. Unfortunately, I did not receive my copy of Red Hood and the Outlaws Rebirth, so it will have to be included in next month’s post. To make up for it, I have included a write up of New Super-Man, which is not a Rebirth title, but it is a brand new character getting a title all of his own as part of this initiative.

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Batgirl and the Birds of Prey Rebirth

Shawna & Julie Benson & Claire Roe

I believe this book is the writing team, Shawna & Julie Benson, first comics work and that shows. The first several pages, which recount the origin of Batgirl and how she came to operate as Oracle, feature narration that is as clumsy as possible. They reach their painful climax with this line “Ironic. A guy named the Joker took away our laughs”. Once those narration boxes fall away and the story gets going things get a lot better. The bulk of the issue is spent introducing Batgirl, but a page or so is spared for Black Canary and Huntress. Batgirl and Black Canary have some nice verbal repartee ad the fight some mobster, quickly establishing both their former camaraderie and some strain on their relationship. That duo is almost always great together. Huntress is the outsider in the group, moving from her place as a super spy – as seen in Grayson – towards her original gimmick of killing mobsters to get revenge for her parent’s death. The motivating factor for the team is that someone is using Batgirls tech and info to take her place as Oracle and she needs to know who it is. Unlike the bulk of last month’s Rebirth titles, this one feels more like the first issue of a new series and not a wheel spinning 0 issue. It is good, not great. That early narration is really bad, but the Benson’s have an ear for dialogue and seem to have a good handle on the characters. This plot doesn’t feel exactly fresh, but as an excuse to get the band back together it works just fine. Claire Roe’s art is strong; not blow you away great, but well-constructed and perfectly suited to the tone of book. While her figures are good, I’m not sure I like the angular faces that she gives the characters. The whole book is like that, it is largely very good, but there are some obvious flaws that keep it from being a slam dunk. Still, this is a title I am interested in reading more of.

7/10

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Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps Rebirth

Robert Venditti & Ethan Van Sciver

Ethan Van Sciver’s art has always been a good fit for Green Lantern. It is detailed and little stiff; well suited for various alien creatures and locales the pop up in this book. His work here is up to his usual fine quality. The story here … is. It just is. It’s there, and that’s about all I can say for it. It opens with Sinestro lamenting the emptiness of his victory. He is now suddenly old, and with the Green Lantern Corps gone his Sinestro Corps rules the galaxy essentially by default. Meanwhile, Hal Jordan relates his origin and how he came to be on the run. He forges a new Green Lantern Ring. That’s pretty much it. It sets up what could be an interesting book, with Hal Jordan going alone against the Sinestro Corps while trying to find the missing GLC, but there isn’t a lot of meat to this Rebirth issue. The biggest draw of this issue is Van Sciver’s art, which I do not believe will be featured in the series going forward. I assume at some point the rest of the GLC will return, given that they are in the title, and this will become something of a classic GL book while Green Lanterns focuses on the newbies, but right now it looks like Hal versus Sinestro. Again.

6/10

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Hellblazer Rebirth

Simon Oliver & Moritat

For once, one of these Rebirth issues actually tells a story. John Constantine has never been a character I’ve cared over much for, but this is a fine comic issue. Since the start of the New 52 and Constantine’s reintroduction to the DC Universe, he has been based in America rather than England. This book sends him back home, by giving him a reason to have left in the first place. He was cursed in one of his various dealings with a devil and just now has decided to change things. So he sets out to con a demon. It is a standard Constantine story, but it does a good job of showing the reader who he is and what he does. It is a great introduction to who Constantine is and what he does. It keeps him in the DCU, but removes him somewhat from the bulk of its superheroes. Simon Oliver seems to have a good handle on the character and Moritat’s art is always a delight. This is a solid book.

8/10

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Justice League Rebirth

Bryan Hitch

Bryan Hitch writes and draws what is essentially a Justice League Mass Effect crossover. A giant, tentacled space monster, called a Reaper, attacks Earth and begins to harvest the population. Its methods and look and message are all reminiscent of the Reapers from Mass Effect. I don’t think it’s that much of a problem; they accomplish what they are meant to do in this one off story, which is to give the Justice League a larger than life foe to fight. Hitch draws the hell out of the book, making it both look realistic and epic. It actually does quite a bit with the plot for such a short issue. Other than the central conflict with the Reaper, which is solved fairly perfunctorily once the league is assembled, it also integrates several new members to a team that by all appearances is just the most classic of JL line ups. It mostly deals with the fact that there is a new Superman around, a Superman that is completely unknown to the other members of the team, and they don’t know how to deal with him. Also there are two new Green Lanterns. By the end of the issue, they are at least accepting of each other as a team. It looks to be attempting to deliver the biggest scale action with just enough character moments to keep things moving along.

7/10

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New Super-Man

Gene Luen Yang & Victor Bogdanovic

This isn’t strictly a Rebirth book, but it is did come out as part of the relaunch so I thought I’d include it. This book is about a Chinese Superman. I picks up after Superman Rebirth, with the New 52 Superman dead and a new one showing up in his place. Kenan Kong is a self-important bully from Shanghai. It opens with him beating up a kid and stealing his lunch. Only as this happens a supervillain attacks. Without thinking, Kenan lobs his soda at the villain, saving the kid he was just bullying. This sets the rest of the issue in motion, as he is interviewed by a news agency, which gets the attention of a secret organization trying to make a Superman for China. The book is doing a lot of interesting things. It is explicity setting up parallels between Kenan Kong and Clark Kent in a lot of superficial ways, like the hard “K” sounds of their names, their connections with people with the initials “L.L.” But he is expressly not the shining tower of virtue that Superman is. There are also parallels to Spider-man, with Kenan being much younger than Superman. But instead of Peter Parker, it is more like Flash Thompson getting the powers. After one issue, it looks like Yang is managing to get the best of both worlds. While Kenan is not a nice kid, he is a great protagonist. The more the book shows his inner life, the more sympathetic he becomes. How he acts is not okay, but there is a reason behind it. He is a teenager going through a tough time. The last thing he probably needs is to be handed superpowers. Or maybe the powers will be the catalyst that allows him to be the good person he could be. This is a pretty great opening issue.

8/10

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Nightwing Rebirth

Tim Seely & Yanick Paquette

This is the best Rebirth of the month. Both Tim Seely and Yanick Paquette do some good work here. It is a smooth transition for Dick Grayson from his previous book, the delightful Grayson, back to being a superhero; from being just Grayson the spy back to being Nightwing. Dick gets to hang out with Damian and Bruce, as well as some of the characters from his old book. It grants a brief check in with Huntress, who next appears in Batgirl and Birds of Prey, as well as Midnighter and the new head of Spyral, the spy organization he just left. Dick is an almost inherently delightful character and he gets ample opportunity to bounce off of other fun characters in this issue. Other than introducing Dick and showing what his deal is, which is essentially being a Batman that other people actually like, it also sets up a villainous group for him to deal with. I don’t have a lot to say about this issue, it all just kind of works.

8/10

Red Hood and the Outlaws Rebirth will be included in next month’s Rebirth Round-up, along with the Rebirth titles for Blue Beetle, Supergirl, Suicide Squad, and Deathstroke. Maybe, just maybe, I will include other new titles that didn’t get a dedicated Rebirth issue, like Batgirl and Superwoman. Maybe not; I guess we’ll all find out. While not all the books have been winners, and certainly not all the series coming out of these have been, I am still really satisfied with DC’s Rebirth titles.

Suicide Squad Review

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If only. That is my takeaway from seeing Suicide Squad. It could have been great, if only. It would have been great if only. Despite the films best efforts, Suicide Squad is still a very entertaining movie. But there are some glaring flaws that consistently detract from the experience. What is shocking is how good the movie is considering how obvious some of its missteps are.

Suicide Squad does not get off to a good start. It opens with some highly artificial character introductions that interspersed with Amanda Waller outlining her Task Force X plan. It is poppy and high energy, but even in just the context of the first 20 minutes it doesn’t fit. While it quickly introduces the team, it doesn’t really give them a context. Deadshot is a hit man with perfect marksman ship who was caught by Batman. Harley Quinn is the Joker’s lady friend who was caught by Batman. El Diablo is a pyrokinetic, Killer Croc is a human Crocodile, and Captain Boomerang is a murderous jewel thief with a signature weapon. Then about 15 minutes later is introduces everyone again. It feels like they chopped up the first act to get to the team faster and to make it feel more like the trailers. It ends up feeling disjointed and unfinished.

After that, though, things really pick up. The team is quickly pressed into action, as a mystical force is attacking the fictional Midway City and that requires their skills and their expendability. Things start to feel more organic. Initially their mission is to rescue a high value individual from the city, afterwards they must try to stop what they are told is a terror attack.

Nominally the villain is the Enchantress and her brother. She began as part of the team, an extra-dimensional entity that had possessed archaeologist June Moone and controlled by Waller, who has her heart. But she manages to break free and attempts to destroy human civilization. While Enchantress is the antagonist that they actually fight, but the true villain of the film is Waller, whose arrogance and disregard for other people endangered the world. There is nothing redeemable about here.

Other than the choppy, nigh incomprehensible opening, the other big flaws are the back half of the Squad and the Joker. This is the Deadshot, Harley and El Diablo show, the other team members are just there to fill out the ranks. Captain Boomerang steals every scene he’s in, but he doesn’t really have anything to do. The same is true of Killer Croc and Katana, who doesn’t even get her own intro. Even Flagg, the leader of the team and the person who should be the emotional center of the movie, gets pretty short shrift. All of that really isn’t a big problem, but it certainly feels like the movie would have been better if only they had done a little more with those characters. Especially Flagg, who was in a relationship with Moone. He has an emotional connection to the mission that is largely ignored for the bulk of the film.

The Joker stuff is harder to reconcile. I don’t hate Jared Leto’s take on the character, despite the reports of his obnoxious, to put it lightly, antics on set. He plays the Joker as some sort of trashball gangster, like a green haired Scarface. But even though the character is in all of about 10 minutes of the movie, that feels like about twice as much as he should. His storyline with Harley, where the Joker spends the movie trying to free her from prison and then the squad, goes nowhere. It’s just kind of there, distracting from everyone else. Harley is one of the best parts of the film, but the stuff with the Joker doesn’t add anything to her portrayal. It is a wasted, pointless subplot. In only they could have provided a reason or some resolution to that plot it would have add some much need depth to the movie.

Yes, the movie stumbles out of the gate. It wastes time on bad characters and plots and ignores more interesting ones or at least the chance to make other characters more interesting. But despite all of that, the film still delights. There is enough emotional connection to the characters to make the viewer care and the action is largely fun. It isn’t quite earned with El Diablo refers to the team as his family, but that thought is not echoed by anybody else in the film. It feels like a movie that bears scars from reshoots and editing, but the core of the film is still a strong action movie.

***1/2

What I Read in July 2016

Another kind of lacking month from me. I just haven’t been reading as much as I usually do lately. I think I can still get back on track over the last half of this year, but I am way off my pace right now. Still, I got three books in July, which isn’t too bad, and I have a handful of one that I half finished. Hopefully I can get those done by the end of August and boost my numbers a little bit. I also meant to read more nonfiction this year, and I haven’t really done that, so I am going to make a concerted effort to fix that as well.

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Hard Revolution

George Pelecanos

I read The Sweet Forever from Pelecanos a couple of years ago and enjoyed it. Since then the rest of his books have been on my long list of things to read and I happened upon a paperback copy of Hard Revolution. If anything I liked it more than The Sweet Forever, though I don’t recall the book perfectly.

Set in 1968, Hard Revolution takes place in DC around the time of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination and the reaction to that. The fractured and tense nature of race relations in the city and the country provide the backdrop and backbone for this story. It follows a pair of police officers, the young black officer Derek Strange and veteran officer Frank Vaughn, as they investigate the murder of a couple of young black men, one of them Strange’s brother. At the same time, two separate groups are planning robberies. One group wants to knock off a convenience store; the other a bank. The book takes a long time to set its pieces in place, but that is largely where it is most effective. Pelecanons is terrific at setting and tone. Tons of period detail, largely stuff about local sports and music, helps ground the work in its time and place. What car a character drives and what music the listen to tell the reader important things about those characters. It doesn’t sugar coat things, but presents the times with their warts all apparent.

I know that Strange is the protagonist of other such novels, so I am not surprised that his story is not complete here, but while he is certainly an interesting protagonist, he doesn’t actually get that much to do. All the time on the set up, set up for a half dozen characters that have major roles in this story, leaves very little for the police work side of the story. The balance between committing the crime and solving the crime are unequal. It left me wanting to know more about Strange, but not feeling like I knew enough about him for a story where his personal relationships should very important. It is also a very dark tale. It all comes together with the death of MLK with things looking bleak for just about everyone involved. Other than some minor quibbles, I liked this book a lot. The set up stuff that dominates the book is its best stuff. It creates, or maybe recreates, a world where each character’s history almost makes their actions inevitable.

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Followed By Frost

Charlie N Holmberg

I enjoyed Charlie N Holmberg’s delightful if slight Paper Magician trilogy, so I went ahead and picked up this book by her. It is largely more of the same which is largely a good thing. It is a little rough getting its premise set up, but once protagonist Smitha is cursed and sets out on her odyssey it really hits its stride.

Smitha is a selfish brat in the way that many teenagers are, perhaps a little worse. She is in desperate need of some growing up. Unfortunately, Followed by Frost hits something of a sour note in forcing that growth. When a local young man proposes marriage to her despite her making it clear she wasn’t interested, she sets up down hard. Too bad it turns out that he is wizard and curses her to have her whole body be as cold as her heart. It is going for a fairy tale sort of opening, but placing this blame on Smitha is a backwards way of looking at what is more the wizards awkwardness and inability to handle rejection. She was undoubtedly mean, but the punishment completely outsized compared to the crime.

Fortunately, it really picks up once Smitha is cursed. She first flees to the north, but the unnatural cold that follows her makes it impossible for her to live with other people. The cold is so bad that she is hunted. Eventually, she finds a way to make her curse useful and finds romance in the doing. From there on it becomes a full on romance. That fairy tale feeling from the beginning holds throughout the book. It is an effective way to frame this story, which sees Smitha grow from a spoiled young girl to a thoughtful woman. While the wizard who placed the curse on her disappears completely after the curse, Smitha’s interactions with Death, brought to her by the curse, are much better. Aside from the mixed message about gender relations, Followed by Frost is a pretty great fantasy romance.

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Nemesis

Agatha Christie

This one felt like a big change from the other Miss Marple stories that I read, mostly because Marple is a major player throughout the book. In the previous handful of Marple books, she has been more of a goad to get the investigators on the right track or even just a deus ex machina to come in at the end with a solved mystery. This time she is actively investigating. The whole thing is a little contrived, though. I realize that is the point of a lot of the book, that Miss Marple is acting on a strange deathbed request from an acquaintance, but there are other parts that don’t make sense either. Like how she ends up staying where she does, put up by people who don’t know her and have secrets to hide. While I did like having a more active Miss Marple, her actually being the focal character of the book, but mystery wasn’t Christie’s best. The only way it keeps up for the length of the book is by having no one know what mystery is being investigated for nearly the first half. I guess that has its own sort of appeal as a mystery, but to me Nemesis didn’t quite work.

Now Playing July 2016

Beaten

Contra 3 – see here.

Gradius 3 – see here.

7th Dragon III: Code VDF –

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I am going to have a full post for this game coming soon, but this turned out to be a nice surprise. I bought it out of excitement for the original DS game five or so years ago, a game that looked great but never came out on this side of the ocean. By the time it go to this third numbered game the series had morphed into something different. Still, this is a solid combination of the Wizardry descendant Etrian Odyssey and something with more of a traditional Dragon Quest lineage. It combines some truly unique classes with some of the most uneven difficulty I’ve seen in a long time. It is a weird, fun little game that I don’t expect to remember having played this time next year. It reminds me most of a mid-tier PS1 RPG, which is a uniquely enjoyable experience.

BoxBoxBoy – The original BoxBoy was one of the best games of last year, this is just more. When a game is as good as BoxBoy, more is really all you need. This time it lets the player make two sets of boxes, and then builds increasingly difficult puzzles around the various options that unlocks. With its simple graphics and character design, all the game has to rely on is its level design. Fortunately, in BoxBoxBoy that design is excellent. Each world is a class in introducing a concept before requiring mastery of said concept and finally combining that concept with previously learned concepts. If you own a 3DS, you need to own both this game and its predecessor.

Space Megaforce – 25 SNES post coming soon.

Ongoing

Illusion of Gaia – The further I get into this game the more I like it. I should have a post about it coming before too much longer. This is the good stuff; this is why I am playing SNES games to this day.

Super Mario RPG – I did start over with the WiiU VC version of this, because I am a glutton for punishment. This has always just been one of those games for me, games that I’ve had the chance to play some and really enjoy, but have never been able to find the time to actually sit down and play it all the way through. I am going to make August the time I do that, I swear it this time. And you know my word means … nothing.

Monster Hunter Generations – Now that I’m done with 7th Dragon, this will be the new fixture in my 3DS’s cartridge slot. I don’t think I ever played Monster Hunter 4 enough, and might actually go back to it this fall, but there is nothing like a Monster Hunter game to eat hours of hours of gaming time. I’ve don’t usually fall for this sort of game. MMOs hold no interest for me, and I never could get more than a couple hours into Diablo or any of its clones, but MH really hits the spot for me. Starting this game out, it seems like they’ve changed things up just enough to make it worth owning alongside MH4U. The styles are a neat idea, if maybe not one they got quite right the first time out. I haven’t played it enough to say for sure. I am trying to stay away from my usual MH weapon, the hammer, this time out. That was the one that immediately grabbed me when I first played MH3U, and I mostly stuck with it in the sequel. Now I am trying out various other weapons, from gunlance to sword and shield. I don’t know what I am going to stick with, though. Every weapon is reminding me the ways that it isn’t the hammer.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE –

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This game is so much better than I expected. After building up in my head what SMT X Fire Emblem could be, when it was revealed to be this I was more than a little disappointed. Still, I had enough faith in Nintendo and Atlus to get the game. As goofy and weightless as the game is, it has an undeniable charm. Maybe it’s just playing a full-fledged JRPG on a big screen, something that has become a distressingly rare occurrence over the last console generation, but there is something remarkably well done about TMS#FE. It is a big game with numerous, complex system, but all of those systems complement each other. This is a game made with a vision that has resulted in a something completely coherent.

Kirby & The Rainbow Curse – I’ve played through the first world of this game. The look is wonderful; no one does aesthetics like Nintendo. Who needs realism when you can make a game look like it’s made out of clay? I don’t know that I am as fully sold on the gameplay. It is different and occasionally tedious, but there is something there. I just don’t know if Nintendo found it.

Upcoming

Yakuza 5 – I bought this the day it came out, but have barely put an hour into actually playing it. Now it is available for free with PS+, showing that I am ever good with my money. I am going to keep putting it in this section until I shame myself into actually playing it.

Fire Emblem Fates Revelations – I’ve taken enough of a break after beating both Birthright and Conquest, it feels like time to get back to what is essentially the third part of this trilogy.

Hyper Light Drifter – I’ve got a controller to play this, since it is compatible with my current set up, but I got this with the Kickstarter and really want to play it. I intend to make time sometime in the coming weeks.

Eliiot Quest – I started this early in the year, but got distracted. I have a lot of games I need to finish before I get back to this, but I really want to.

Secret of Evermore – I am putting this on her as wishful thinking as much as any real intention to get to it in August. Illusion of Gaia should be finished soon, and hopefully Super Mario RPG not long after that, but I don’t know that how much time I’ll have for yet another 16-Bit RPG (of sorts) in the next month. Maybe I should have put Skyblazer or Wild Guns here, but I really think Evermore is next after Illusion of Gaia.

What I Watched in July 2016

Movies

Iverson – Allen Iverson is an interesting, talented, controversial athlete. He is the perfect subject for a documentary. Too bad this movie in not really interested in engaging with its subject in any meaningful way. It skirts into hagiography. I don’t think Allen Iverson was a villain, but this movie seems to exist as an attempt to explain away all of his various controversies. Iverson is/was a man with problems; he wasn’t always the good guy either on or off the court. I wish this movie would have done more to show his complexity. **

Lethal Weapon – There is something undeniably propulsive about this film. It constantly ramps things up higher and higher. Also, it is also understandable that Gibson’s Riggs is called a lethal weapon; he really seems dangerous to everyone around him here. The calming influence of Murtaugh is really felt. I just love something about a movie that hits ludicrous heights and just keeps going up from there. This movie does just about everything right. ****

Legend of Tarzan – see review here. ***

Lethal Weapon 2 – The second movie doesn’t quite have the same impact as the first, but it still works. They are already sanding the edges off Riggs. He is becoming more a charming rogue than a dangerous maniac. Part of that is just character development; part of it is losing what made the character interesting. This movie doesn’t really ramp up to craziness so much as it starts at crazy and stays there. It doesn’t have to introduce the characters so it can get right to firing machine guns in downtown LA. ***1/2

Hudson Hawk – I know this movies reputation, but I love it. Nearly all of the complaints people make about the movie are true, but the largely seem misguided to me. This movie is basically a Looney Tunes cartoon as a live action movie. No idea was too silly, nothing too absurd to be included. It doesn’t all work, but it is an amazing madcap action comedy. It is just so much fun, and everyone involved seems to be in on the joke. ***1/2

ET: The Extra-Terrestrial – This movie is pretty much perfect. I needed to see this after The BFG disappointed me so much. The relationship between Elliot and ET is so wonderfully done. I don’t know what else to say, it is too good. *****

The BFG – see review here. **1/2

Hot Pursuit – This movie is a complete waste. It has a decent set up for essentially a buddy comedy, but other than a few scenes it never really does anything. Vergara and Witherspoon are both funny, but this movie doesn’t really give them much to work with. It is just a bad movie.*1/2

2 Fast 2 Furious – This is the low point of the Fast & Furious movies. It does have its moments of charm, but it is mostly just a less engaging retread of the first movie, a movie that itself wasn’t all that great. The thing is, I liked a lot of the movies new additions to the cast, even the ones that didn’t reappear after this movie. I wouldn’t mind seeing Eva Mendes back, or some of the other street racers. **

Lethal Weapon 3 – This is where things really start to go downhill. Joe Pesci is still around, though he doesn’t really have a reason to be. The comedy has a overwhelmed the action to a great extent. Still, it is a fun movie to watch, but it lacks all but the merest spark of energy that suffused the first of second movies. This one is merely fine. ***

Lost Soul: the Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau – This is just a fascinating story about one of the biggest train wrecks in movie history. It sets up Stanley as the sympathetic visionary, but you can still see why he might worry the studio. Seeing a man get his dream job, only for it to kind of morph into something else and then be snatched away from him is hard to see. That’s not even getting into the nonsense that Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando perpetrated on set. It is amazing to see, as everything gets further and further away from the promising film that it began as. ****

Ip Man – Part kung fu movie, part biopic; Ip Man is pretty darn entertaining. It tells the story of Ip Man during the Japanese occupation of China during WWII. He ends up in conflict with a Japanese general thanks to his kung fu mastery. It is really pretty entertaining, a little more somber than most Kung Fu movies I’ve seen, but the fight choreography was excellent and I really like the more serious story. This is a really entertaining film. ****

Star Trek Beyond – see review here. ****

Back to the Future Part 3 – I know I’ve written about this before, but it showed up on Netflix. I love the whole series beyond the point of examining it critically. *****

Lethal Weapon 4 – All of the energy of this series has been expended by this point. There is some enjoyable camaraderie apparent in the cast, many of whom have been here for 3 or 4 movies at this point, but it just feels really flabby and spent. As one last look in on some old friends, this is a decent excuse. As a buddy cop movie, it is a tired retread. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, but it really feels like more of a footnote than another entry in the series. **1/2

Ghostbusters – see review here. ***1/2

Fast & Furious – I got this whole series on DVD during a sale on amazon, and this being the one I’ve never seen it was the first one that I put in. It isn’t anywhere near as good as the last three, but it is certainly better than first three. There is certainly something to it being an actual sequel to the first movie. There is energy seeing those characters back again. It is also the first movie that feels like a movie that was intended to have sequels, not just a movie that had sequels forced upon it because it made money. It isn’t the best, but it is entertaining enough. ***

The Holiday – I watched this because it had Jack Black in it, which he barely was. It’s not bad, I guess, though I am no expert on the romantic comedy. It certainly feels too long, clocking in at over 2 hours. It could really stand to lose twenty minutes or so, probably in its very relaxed opening. Still, I was moderately entertained throughout. Mostly by Eli Wallach. ***

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian – This is a bad movie. The first Night at the Museum was pointless kiddy fare; this is just a diminished returns version of that, with one exception. This movie has Amy Adams in it. That is the reason I watched it; I can’t change the channel on Amy Adams. She is too adorable. I would watch her in absolutely anything. **

TV

Fargo S1 – I watched the second season when it aired, but I hadn’t seen more than a little of the first until I picked it up on DVD. It is unsurprisingly great. There are so many great performances in this season. Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, and Allison Tolman are all amazing. The slow revelation of just how awful Freeman’s Lester Nygaard is is a great reveal. He starts out kind of pathetic and just gets worse and worse as the show goes along. Meanwhile, Thornton’s Malvo is a diabolical force of nature. They are a great pair of characters to watch. I was also struck by how many comedians, or at least actors primarily thought of as comedians, are in this cast. Glenn Howerton from Always Sunny is here, as are Key & Peele. They fit perfectly into the darkly comic world of this show. This is just a near perfect show.

Fargo S2 – This show is still great, but I might like the first season better. While the first season is focused, this one is sprawling. There are so many characters with separate stories going on in the first half of the season. They are all so good, but they sort of distract from the central story. Which is part of the point, I believe. This is a show as much about the characters as it is about the crime. This time through, including the first time through some of the early episodes, I was stuck with how much I liked Bear Gerhart. He seems like a man who has no illusions about what his family does, which is a big reason why he is so insistent on his son staying out of it. It isn’t until things are finally falling apart, and he feels forced to take out his niece, that he fully engages in the war with Kansas City.

The Shannara Chronicles – MTV’s trashy fantasy show that does its best to channel GoT, Hunger Games and LotR all at once is actually rather delightful. I don’t know that I would call it good, but I certainly enjoyed it. It takes some rather extreme liberties with its adaptation, often in service to actually nothing from a storytelling perspective, but there is just something compulsively watchable about the show. Manu Bennett as Allannon is a lot of fun, and the central trio are good, at least they are by the end of they are. It is cheesy and trashy and at times nonsensical, but it never stops being fun to watch.

Outlander S2 – The last episode aired at the start of July and it capped off a really great second season for Starz’s time travel romance adventure show. The last episode finally gets to the frame story that the book it is adapting started with, making the introduction of Brianna and Roger a little abrupt than the book. I have some problems with the extra sized finale largely that it cuts back and forth between the past and the more recent past fairly rapidly with no connection between the two time periods. Still it is an effective episode and finale. Outlander’s second season is definitely more rushed than first season, having fewer episodes and more plot to cover. You could really feel the what was left out of the book, but it was still a highly entertaining show week to week.

25 Years 25 Games 12: Contra 3

This is what I meant when I said I didn’t play enough Konami games as a kid. I had never played Contra 3: The Alien Wars until last week. I had played Contra on the NES, but it didn’t really click with me. I don’t think I quite understood how it was meant to be played. I wanted something like Mario or Mega Man, and Contra wasn’t that. I didn’t make much of an effort to play any Contra games after that admittedly brief encounter years ago. After playing Contra 3, I have realized what a mistake that was. Contra 3 is a game that earns its reputation as one of the best on the system.

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Contra 3 is a game of escalation, where each level gets bigger as it goes and starts bigger than the one before it. You start running down a ravaged city street, shooting aliens and move on to climbing buildings and eventually hanging off the sides of missiles as they shoot across the screen. The game starts a crazy awesome and amps up both the crazy and the awesome as it goes along. There are some times when the game stops to show off fancy new SNES tricks, but otherwise it puts the player directly in control of fighting an ever growing threat. It is a short game, but it is just perfectly paced and the intentionally high difficultly level makes the game have more of an impact than most hour long games would have.

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The story of Contra 3, such as it is, is basically a mash of most sci fi action movies of the 80’s. You play as Arnold or Sly and fight Xenomorphs and a Terminator and there is the barest touch of Star Wars. It doesn’t hide these references, those references are the game. Better than any licensed property could ever hope to, Contra 3 puts the player in the action and lets them be the hero of these movies. There is something undeniably charming about how shameless Contra is about ripping off its inspirations. It is the epitome of that era of gaming.

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The warts are the top down mode 7 levels that are largely forgettable and really just north of being straight up bad. There are only two of them and they are over relatively quickly, but they really just aren’t that much fun to play. The game would be better off if the simply weren’t there, they seem to exist to pad out the rather brief playtime. Still, they are only minor blips on what is otherwise a completely excellent game.

 

I’ve always been more of a Metal Slug fan. Those games lack the punishing precision of Contra, or at least the Contra games I’ve played, giving the player all the spectacle not matter how sloppy they play. There is something to be said for the Konami’s series more exacting style of play. Even with the Konami code, which is unfortunately absent from the American version of this game, it is still difficult to get through the game. It makes the player learn the game, makes you take a little time and assess the situation before going guns blazing, though once you’ve handle on things guns blazing is the way to go.

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I don’t know that Contra 3 will ever be among my favorite SNES games, but I can clearly see why it so frequently shows up on such lists. It is a blast. Brutal, epic and unforgiving. It is this sort of run and gun game executed perfectly.