What I Read December 2019

I have a lot of books that are part way read, but I just couldn’t muster the time or interest to finish most of them. I really think there is a book I have forgotten as well, but seeing as how I’ve forgotten it, I can’t remember what that book is. So just two books finished this month, and one of them is a reread. Ehh, its fine.

The Harrowing of Gwynedd

Katherine Kurtz

I’ve now read three or four of Kurtz’s Deryni novels. No complete series, just random books from around this 15 book series. There is a lot in here that feels like it influenced Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, though that might just be that they were drawing on similar influences, namely medieval English history. I like these books; if I didn’t I wouldn’t keep buying them when the opportunity arises. But I tend to find them a little dry. They read a bit like histories. This one is one of the more depressing books I’ve read. It is the follow up to a trilogy that I have not read at all. A group of garbage nobles control the young king as his Regents. His twin brother and a group of rebels work to counter their evil.

It is the first book of a trilogy, and it doesn’t resolve a whole lot with that plot. But it does set up a lot to come. It is mostly the good guys scrambling to save who they can and try to survive until the young king comes of age and can rule on his own, if there is anything left at that time. It is relentless and depressing. There is a spiritual side of this story that does not resonate with me, but I think there is something there that I should be paying more attention to. I just can’t muster the interest to get into these books past the surface level. And that surface level is decently entertaining. Maybe if I had a full trilogy to get a whole story I would like them better.

A Crown of Swords

Robert Jordan

I read this along with a podcast. It is never going to be my favorite book in the series, but it one of my favorites in . . . I was going to write “the back half of the series,” but I just did the math and realized that this book is actually in the first half of the series. It is better than the three that follow it. It also doesn’t feel like a complete story like the first six books of the series did. I really like the Mat story in this book, as much as I think Jordan messed up with part of it. I have seen a lot of people have a very strong negative reaction to Mat’s relationship with Tylin. While I didn’t read it exactly the way they did, I think I might have the weaker read on it. This is me putting words in the writer’s mouth, but I think it was supposed to read a turning of the tables with Mat going from pursuer to the pursued, and that he is more shocked at the situation than genuinely upset by it. Reading now, though, it definitely comes off as more sexual assault-y than I found it reading it as a teenager. It is something that is really easy to fix in an adaptation without losing what I think is the intended commentary, which is flipping expected gender roles. But as it reads I don’t think it works.

Now Playing December 2019

Beaten

SteamWorld Dig 2 – I think I legitimately forgot this game was released until I found it on a Christmas eshop sale. I really wanted to play it on WiiU, which it was never released on. I don’t think it was originally released on 3DS either. I loved the first SteamWorld Dig game and I loved SteamWorld Heist. This game turns the fairly simple “dig straight down, bring stuff back up” of the first game into a full blown metroidvania. I loved it. The game really isn’t doing anything new or innovative, like Heist did, but it executes its formula incredibly well. There is something incredibly soothing about the rhythm of the game. Making a trip to dig up some gems and kill some monsters, going back up to sell what you find, buying some new equipment and power ups, lather, rinse, repeat. It is just kind of a perfect video game. No matter how many indie-ish metroidvania games we get, every time I play a good one I remember why these are so great. This is just a very good exercise in the genre.

Ongoing

Stella Glow – The same eShop sale that brought me SteamWorld Dig 2 also got me this game. I’m roughly a third of the way into it and it is fine. I don’t really have more to say about it than that. The battles are decent; there are some balance problems as it relates to character speed, but it mostly works fine. I recall some similar problems with this developer’s Luminous Arc games on the DS. The stuff around the story and characters is just above the most risible stuff that frequently appears in JRPGs. It keeps looking like it is going to be just kind of gross, but keeps itself from falling into the abyss.

Life is Strange – I cleared the first chapter of this game. It is really good. It is doing something I have not seen many games do, telling a kind of story that few games do. The game does so with a very obvious video game mechanic. Prince of Persia did this games rewind time thing in an action game 15 years ago. Here, it is put into a, so far, pretty mundane and thoughtful story. This is the kind of thing I want more of; games that push video games into places other than just violence.

Fire Emblem Warriors (3DS) – I was shopping for Christmas presents and bought this on amazon for next to nothing to give to my brother. It was only later that I recalled that he does not have a New 3DS to play it on. So I kept it. I’ve played five or six missions. The mix of Dynasty Warriors and Fire Emblem works surprisingly well. The menus are dense and not particularly well laid out. I will probably get through the story mode in January and basically call this game done. It is fun enough, worth the $10 I spent on it.

Judgment – I keep making a little progress in this game, loving it while I am playing it and then forgetting about it for weeks at a time after I turn it off. I think if I just let the game take me I would have the time of my life, but I have been too busy lately to really sit and enjoy it. Maybe in the new year. I did finally get to the drone races, which are simple and fun and I spent way too long with them.

Upcoming

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – I have a hankering to play this some more.

Code Name: STEAM – I got about halfway through this game a couple of years ago and I really just want to go back and finish it off.

Dragon Quest XI, Final Fantasy XV, Horizon: Zero Dawn – A trio of PS4 games I have started and just sort of lost track of. I really want to beat them, maybe not in January, but some time in 2020. In early 2020, because I am going to have a busy second half of the year. But I really want to beat some of these.

Persona Q2 and a Goodbye to the Nintendo 3DS

I knew that Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth was going to be one of the last new games to be released for the Nintendo 3DS. I thought it would make a wonderful send off not only for that system, but for the entire Nintendo DS family of systems. There was no series that was more consistent across the more than fifteen years of DS and 3DS existence than Atlus’s Etrian Odyssey. The games only appeared on DS, with the first appearing in 2007 and the last proper game in the series, Nexus, hitting early this year. The Persona Q games, functioned as spin-offs of Etrian Odyssey, as well as spin offs of the Persona series. Persona wasn’t ubiquitous on the DS or the 3DS, but the greater Shin Megami Tensei series had more than a few releases. The last important game for the system being a mix of both seemed fitting.

That is why it pains me to say that Persona Q2 is an all around disappointment. It doesn’t really do anything as well as games in either of its parent series do. Some of it is baked into the concept; combining the casts of 3 Persona games into one meant that the game was always going to feel crowded. Some are seemingly self-inflicted, like changed to the map making interface. Overall, the feeling is a game that is constantly less fun to play than it should be.

I had a problem making sense of the bloated cast in the first Persona Q game, and that one was only combining the characters from Personas 3 and 4, this one adds the cast of Persona 5 to the mix and has an even bigger problem. The game does its best to lessen this, but it does so in the most disappointing way. You start with just the cast of Persona 5. At the start of the second, of five, dungeons you unlock the cast of Persona 4. Then in the third dungeon you finally get the cast of Persona 3. You are nearly halfway through the game before you even get to the Persona 3 crew. By that time you likely will have a pretty established party. The game gives you ways of getting underused party members up to speed in a hurry, but trying to sort through this many characters and find defined roles for them in the game’s battle system is a chore, especially because this is a game that is not afraid to punish the player. It is hard to experiment when any battle can go south in a hurry and a party wipe probably means a significant loss in progress. The game ends up kind of pushing the player to use the Persona 5 cast and they are the least interesting.

The combination of the casts of the three games also highlights their similarities. To me the differences were more apparent when it was just two, but now that all three of them are together you can see how the games have roles for characters to fill and while some details around the sides may change, the central conceits of these characters doesn’t.

There is a story. The somewhat parodic movies that the dungeons are structured after kind of work, I guess. The main plot, though, never even came close to catching my attention.

I was most disappointed in the map making. The game takes the stylish menus and such designs from Persona 5 and tries to transplant them on to the 3DS. It doesn’t really work, and it takes up more of the screen. The game adds a bunch of neat new elements to the map, like gates that toggle on and off, but zooms the screen in on the drawing part to make it something of a chore to actually use. Also, the drawing just doesn’t seem as responsive as it has been in the past. Overall, it just feels like a step back.

I did have fun with Persona Q2. I guess I liked it, it was just something of a disappointment. I wanted a fond farewell and I got a game that did its best to be unlikeable despite its many good qualities. There are other aspects of the game I could go into, like the demon fusing and the battles, but I don’t really have it in me. The baseline is that it was good, but everything it does has been done better somewhere else. I don’t really want just tear into the game forever.

Instead, I think this is a good time to eulogize the Nintendo 3DS. Persona Q2 is almost certainly the last significant 3DS release. It’s run was, if anything, a little longer than that of the original DS. Still, I get the feeling that the 3DS was written off years ago as a failure because it wasn’t the sales juggernaut that the original DS was and never really reexamined. I think it deserves to be remembered well, because the 3DS is a great little system. I’ve had a 3DS since only a few months after it was released, and I feel like I’ve played most of the major releases for the system. In the last couple of years I’ve skipped a bunch of Nintendo first party titles, but they have mostly been remakes and ports of games I have already played. Since 2011, the Nintendo 3DS has easily been my most played video game system.

It is home to lots of great JRPGs, like the Bravely Default games and a sizable chunk of Atlus output. There are tons of great platformers, including several Mario games and some really underrated Kirby games. There are adventures like all the Professor Layton and Ace Attorney and Zero Escape games. There are three excellent Fire Emblem games, several great Legend of Zeldas. A bunch of oddities, like Rhythm Thief, BoxBoy, and Attack of the Friday Monsters. There are three Monster Hunters. There are just so many good games. The 3D gimmick was kind of a miss, though it still looks really neat.

Nintendo combining their development for the console/handheld hybrid Switch is almost certainly the smart move. I will likely get a Switch sooner rather than later. The Switch is great, and Nintendo not splitting their resources across two different platforms is a good thing. But I am going to miss the little clamshell 3DS. I’ve been taking one of those with me everywhere for more than a decade and likely will continue to do so until I completely exhaust the DS/3DS games I can get my hands on. The dedicated handheld system appears to be dead, unless you count the Switch Lite, and I am sad to see it go. But I am thankful for all the fun I’ve had with my 3DS over the last eight years. Good night, sweet prince …

Best TV Shows of 2019

I did my Top 20 movies, so I decided to do the same with TV. Lot’s of good stuff this year, and a lot of the stuff that just missed the list is as good as the bottom quarter of this list. A lot of it has the problem of not being recent, so I don’t remember it that well. Here is the list:

20. The Boys – This show is dark and cynical and gory, descriptors that would normally kill any interest I have in a work of fiction. However, while The Boys is all of that, there is a surprising amount of heart hidden underneath that. The show, at least in the first season, is ultimately less cynical that it wants the viewer to believe it is. What made the show work for me is the surprisingly heartfelt romance between Hughie and Annie, showing that there are also good and human people in this show, along with all the cartoon monsters.

19. Dear White People – I loved the first two seasons of Dear White People; this third season is still good, but it feels a little more scattered than the previous two. The show has always been an ensemble that alternated viewpoint characters from episode to episode, but Samantha has largely been the axis the show has turned on. This season made a conscious effort to turn the focus elsewhere, and it destabilizes the show somewhat. It is still good, and I am looking forward to the fourth season, but this one was a step down from the previous two.

18. Carnival Row – First of all, and this goes for the next show on this list as well, I am already completely annoyed that any show that is even remotely fantasy is going to be reviewed as though it was trying to be Game of Thrones, even if it shares as little with that show as, for example, Carnival Row does. Carnival Row, with its fantasy Victorian setting and murder mystery set up, is almost perfectly crafted to be something I love. And I did love it, I think. I greatly enjoyed watching the show, I am just not sure if it is actually any good. Still, I enjoyed it enough to put it on the list. I might rewatch it to see if that enjoyment holds up.

17. The Witcher – This is the most recent show on the list, and after I sit with it for a while it might go up or down on this list. Right now, it is resting in a pleasant afterglow. I don’t know that this show made the best use of its eight episodes, taking a little too long to get to what it is setting up as the main plot. However, I was much less interested in that plot than I was in Geralt going around fighting monsters and learning that man is the real monster. I would be into this show if it was just a big budget Hercules The Legendary Journeys, but it is more than that. I am really looking forward to more of this.

16. Santa Clarita Diet – The third and final season of this show continued to be excellent. That excellence was in large part due to the performances of Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant especially. The rest of the cast is good, and there are a lot of solid guest appearances, mostly from stars of other excellent TV comedies, like creator Victor Fresco’s underrated previous show Better Off Ted. I am really sad to see this show go, especially as it didn’t quite appear to be finished. I don’t know that they could have found a satisfying ending to it, but at least it left off at the end of a section of the story, and not a complete cliffhanger.

15. Brooklyn 99 – I really enjoyed the first season of this show on NBC. It is in that solidly comfortable part of the lifetime of a show. Other than Chelsea Peretti, who is both great and whose character was kind of an odd fit for the show, the cast does not seem interested in moving on. The show just continues a string of routine excellence.

14. GLOW – This show has done an amazing job of building up its cast. This season has the crew doing the show as a nightly Vegas show, with the cast getting a little stir crazy stuck in Las Vegas for the time their contract runs, with many of them finding interests outside of show. It is just really entertaining television.

13. Bob’s Burgers – See what I said above about Brooklyn 99. Bob’s Burgers is also routinely excellent. Just shockingly few misses. Each episode adds something or someone new to the show. One offs become recurring characters, one episode obsessions become part of characters. None of it feels like they are doing anything but growing organically. I hope this show runs forever and I hope

12. Unbelievable – I know a lot of people who have this show much higher, and I can’t say they are wrong. This is the lowest it appeared on any draft of this list. This show does a great job of centering a police procedural show around a different kind of detective. It does a great job showing what would cause a rape victim would recant a true account. Great work from Merritt Weaver, Kaitlyn Dever and Toni Collette. Just a great show.

11. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow – Season 4 almost lives up to the excellence of Season 3. This one starts with the team tracking down magical creatures that have been strewn throughout time. As they collect them, someone comes up with a plan to use them for no good. Added to the team this season is Constantine, whose expertise with magic is needed. The show is wild and silly and possible the most entertaining thing on TV when it comes to just pure enjoyability.

10. Stranger Things – I know some people are down on Season 3 of this show, but I think it works. It turns more to echoing action movies and TV shows of the 80s now; there is a character that is essentially a terminator running around and Hopper expressly dresses like Thomas Magnum for most of the season. It is louder and broader. But the characters remain true. I think I might be more into and more investing in this show than any other currently running series. I recognize some faults, but I just love to immerse myself in this world when I get the chance. I love how the cast just keeps expanding, and somehow each new addition just fits right in.

9. What We Do in the Shadows – What We Do in the Shadows was one of the best comedies of the last ten years. Somehow it seems to work even better as a series. This show takes the set up and the sense of humor of the movie, but leaves the characters. Now it is just a comedy about a group of vampires, living in New York, living their lives. The new characters are great, and the show goes some new and interesting places. It is just a lot of fun.

8. Good Omens – I haven’t read the book this mini-series is based on. I do, however, love Michael Sheen and David Tennant. I like Jon Hamm. I like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. This show is a lot of fun; lots of irreverent humor and strong performances. The show really sings when it focuses on Tennant and Sheen; they have wonderful chemistry together. It if was just the continuing adventures of Crowley and Aziraphale it would likely have still made this list. This is just a really entertaining show.

7. Documentary Now! – If it were just the first two episodes of Season 3, I think Documentary Now Season 3 would have a strong case to make this list. I am not sure those are the best episodes of the season. The last episode, Any Given Saturday Afternoon, is delightful. Original Cast Album: Co-op is wonderful. There are no bad episodes. The show breaks from the first two seasons, which largely focused on Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, to feature a lot more guest performances. It is just great.

6. Fleabag – I always feel like I should have more to say about this show. It is excellent from start to finish. Well acted, well written, funny and affecting. It is basically everything you could want out of a half hour comedy. It’s on Amazon Prime; you should go watch it.

5. Doom Patrol – There was a lot of great superhero TV this year. But nothing tapped into the fun and weirdness that I love comics for better than Doom Patrol on DC Universe. While the aggressive weirdness brings a lot of entertainment, it is built on a solid foundation of some wonderfully realized, human characters. It is great to watch this found family come together and solve problems even weirder than they are.

4. When They See Us – Amazing, powerful and heartbreaking. When They See Us tells the story of Central Park 5, a group of young boys who were railroaded and sent to jail for a crime they didn’t commit. Their story highlights some flaws in the criminal justice system. The show is just amazingly composed and acted, and while it ultimately ends on a somewhat optimistic note, is completely devastating. This is the show on my list that feels the most important, everything above it is fun.

3. Russian Doll – This show came out long enough ago that I don’t remember all of the finer details. I remember the feel of the show and the concept, but I am completely unable to bring any details to mind. Natasha Lyonne is stuck in a recurring loop, living the same day over and over. She is trying desperately to find a way out, and eventually finds another person caught in a similar loop. I remember the show being funny and interesting and thoughtful. I need to watch it again.

2. The Good Place – Whether this is Season 3, or the second half of Season 3 and the first half of Season 4, The Good Place deserves this place on the list. It has the tone and jokes of some of my favorite comedies of the last few years, also created by Michael Schur, but also tells a strong serialized story. It frequently strays into schmaltz, but it all works for me anyway. It is unique among sitcoms as a show that completely changes the premise every three or four episodes. Season 3 did this several times, settling into a concept for three or four episodes before shaking everything up. I love this show.

1. I Think You Should Leave – The whole season of this show is less than two hours long. I think I spent more time watching this than any other show on this list. Sketch shows and be hit or miss, but this one cranked out hit after hit. It is aggressively weird on a frequency that just resonates with me. I absolutely love this show. The Baby of the Year sketch, Fenton’s Stable and Horse Ranch, The Night Scrooge Saved Christmas, the car focus group, I could literally go on all day. I am apparently a huge Tim Robinson fan and I can’t wait for more of this.

Best Movies of 2019

I started with a plan to make a Top 10 list, but that felt a little limiting. So I expanded to 15. Then to 25. Then I scaled it back to 20. Then back to 15 again. Finally, I went back to 20. I was just as firm in choosing the movies on my list. The real problem is that if I cut it at 20, there were two or three movies I wanted to talk about as much as the three or four in front of them that would miss the list. If I cut it at 15, the same would be true. So I landed on 20 movies for my best of the year list. I didn’t really expand it because this was an especially good movie year, it was fine, but because I saw a lot of movies this year and I really want to talk about some of them. So here is my list, with links to written reviews if I have one:

20. Toy Story 4:

This one kept falling as I adjusted my list, and I am not sure that is entirely fair. As I came to the end this list making process, Toy Story 4 essentially fell out of my Top 20. I really liked the movie. I don’t think the people I’ve heard call it the best Toy Story are crazy, but thinking on it half a year later, I don’t know that it quite stacks up for me. Still, its a real good movie.

19. The Two Popes:

I just saw this, so it might rise or fall in my estimation in the next couple of weeks, but right now it is just clinging to the list. I really liked the scenes where Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins are debating the direction to take the church and what is necessary to be a good priest or cardinal or pope. The rest of it is fine, just not as riveting as those scenes. Netflix had a heck of a year and this is one of their better ones.

18. Ready or Not:

This one has really grown on me since I’ve seen it. Its horror trappings almost kept me from going to see it, but I am glad I did. Just a winning performance from Samara Weaving, and several other strong performances throughout the cast. Lots of well staged action, humor that mostly hits its mark and gore that is sure to please whoever it is there to please. This movie deserves to be seen by more people. Knives Out hits a lot of the same notes; the two would make a great double feature.

17. The Breaker Upperers:

This is a fun little New Zealand comedy from early this year about a pair of women who run a business helping people break up with their partners. It slips in just conversational weirdness with some real strange, bigger moments that are almost all funny. It manages to catch you off guard, like when the protagonists visit one of their mothers and slip away to the bathroom to steal her cocaine. The situation is weird enough, but every detail added is stranger and funnier. This movie is a lot of fun and needs more people to pay attention to it.

16. Klaus:

A Netflix produced, Christmas themed, animated movie in the style of Disney movies. The plot and the story are good, a solid little Christmas movie. It is generally a fun world to enter for the 90 or so minutes the movie lasts. What really sets it above others is how gorgeous the animation is. It is like if Disney kept putting their resources into traditional animation instead of switching to CG. Basically, everything about this movie works. It really is worth the watch and will likely be in the Christmas rotation for years to come.

15. The Standoff At Sparrow Creek:

This is a solid little thriller. After a shooting, a militia group meets up to find that it was committed by someone in their group. Without knowing who was responsible, they lock down their headquarters and try to find the guilty party, hoping that by making it clear the rest of them had nothing to do with it, they won’t be in trouble. Of course, all of them have secrets. And out hero seems more interested in finding a scapegoat than the real party responsible. It is tense and entertaining.

14. The King:

I don’t quite know why this movie worked so well for me. It loses some of the best things from its Shakespearean sources, like Falstaff being an enjoyable character, but doesn’t do so in the name of being more historically accurate. Still, the story it tells of Prince Hal’s transformation into King Henry V, and the isolation of being the King I found very entertaining. This movie is for me.

13. Ad Astra:

Sad Dad in space. This movie is cold and haunting. Beautiful, but distant. It doesn’t quite bring everything home as well as one could hope, but the first two thirds are some of the best stuff I saw in a theater in 2019.

12. Missing Link:

I am a little late to the Laika love, having only really starting to pay attention after Kubo and the Two Strings. Their movies, in general, are criminally underseen. Missing Link, which bombed at the box office, might be the most overlooked. It is about a disrespected adventurer, Sir Lionel Frost, who meets up with a Bigfoot, Susan, who wants to find a place he belongs with more of his own kind. This sets them off on a world spanning adventure, as they evade hunters who want to catch Susan, as well as a former flame of Lionel’s, Adelina, from whom they stole a map. The whole thing is beautiful and heartwarming.

11. Jojo Rabbit:

This movie sets itself up a delicate balancing act and mostly pulls it off. I think it did a good job of making humor out of a terrible situation, but not trivializing the subject. I found it very heartfelt and charming. I really bought into the Jojo’s personal journey from being an outcast kid who believed some vile stuff to a thinking person. It is also just really funny, which you know, is good in a comedy.

10. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote:

I really wish Terry Gilliam hadn’t been showing his ass in the news lately, so I could feel better about championing his long gestating passion project. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is about a man who played Don Quixote in a movie thinking he really is Don Quixote, and recruiting the director who made that movie to be his Sancho Panza as that director tries to get him help. Adam Driver plays the director as a man who has lost sight of his passion and is oblivious to the wreckage he leaves in his wake. It is a movie about chasing your dreams, even if others think you are crazy. It is kind of a mess. It is the quintessential Terry Gilliam movie. I loved it.

9. High Flying Bird:

Basically, the whole gimmick of this movie is that it is a sports movie that goes out of its way to never show any sports. It ends up playing like a heist movie, with agent Ray manipulating everything to try to end a lockout and get his clients, especially rookie Erick playing and paid. It is really entertaining.

8. John Wick 3:

The John Wick series continues to be just masterclasses of action movies. This one gets even deeper into the arcane mythology of this world. It also delivers three or four of the best action scenes of the year. Really, there is little not to like about it. The only flaw I can point to is that I don’t know that it is better than either of the previous two movies. That really isn’t a flaw; it is really just a sign of how great the movies are. I didn’t much like the ending twist, though. More in a I wish that didn’t happen way than a that didn’t make sense way.

7. Shazam:

I was really afraid this movie wouldn’t hold up. I loved it early in the year, but kind of thought that a revisit would damper my enthusiasm. However, I watched with my family at Thanksgiving and it is still great. There are a few moments where the tone kind of gets away from it, like the boardroom scene, but otherwise it is the closest we’ve gotten to an Amblin superhero movie.

6. The Laundromat:

I might be the only person that likes this movie. I don’t get its complete dismissal. It packages complex financial maneuvering into a package that anyone can understand, making essentially an economics lesson entertaining. I loved the bits with Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, I liked the parts with Meryl Streep. It was entertaining and infuriating.

5. Booksmart:

A lot of people just wrote this off as Superbad, but with girls. While there are similarities, people graduating this year were in kindergarten when Superbad came out. And honestly, Booksmart is the better movie. This is centered around great performances by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, but Billie Lourd steals every scene she is in. It is a surprisingly human movie, showing all of these high school kids as full people and not just one note stereotypes. Plus, it is really funny.

4. The Irishman:

The Irishman is long and contemplative and mostly a downer. It is also eminently watchable. The movie works to tear down the mafia mythology Scorsese built up in movies like Goodfellas and Casino. The de-aging special effects are effective if overblown. It is great to Joe Pesci again. This is just a great movie.

3. Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood:

This one stands out in Tarantino’s filmography. It is less pulpy, less violent than most of his other movies. It is thoughtful; with fading star Rick Dalton looking back on his career and the movie looking back on a Hollywood that died right at the time the movie is taking place. It is a world on the cusp of change. Even with the movie giving everyone a happy ending, it is clear that the world they live in will not last much longer. This is the perfect hangout movie.

2. Parasite:

A wild, wild movie. Parasite starts as one thing and just sort of seamlessly changes into something else two or three times. It highlights societal problems without really vilifying any of the people involved. Still, there are certainly “good guys” and “bad guys” but they are all people. It is heartbreaking and hilarious. Parasite is simply an amazing experience.

1. Knives Out:

Yeah, this movie is very much for me. Great cast, great performances. A classic murder mystery that also manages to find some twists withing that set up. The movie just keeps the viewer guessing the whole time and never stoops to cheating. It might keep secrets of who knows what and who did what, but in all of its pulling the wool over the viewers eyes and rug out from under their feet, the movie never lies. It is just not always clear what you are seeing. This is a movie that will be in heavy rewatch rotation for years to come.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

 

The Rise of Skywalker had a tough task, especially after Disney announced that it was going to be the last film in what they are calling the Skywalker saga. I am not here to write about how this movie fits into the overall Star Wars story; I am planning that post for a later date, after I have had more time to digest this and maybe see it again. I am also not here to relitigate The Last Jedi, which for the record is the best movie since the original trilogy, no contest. I am merely attempting to review the movie itself. All the other stuff is important and it is nearly impossible to separate this movie from ‘what this movie means’ but for the next few hundred words I am going to attempt to do that.

The Rise of Skywalker opens with the reveal that Emperor Palpatine is still alive (alive again? Its not clear). He has been hiding on a Sith planet called Exegol, building a new fleet of Star Destroyers and secretly controlling the first order from the shadows. A spy in the First Order gets this information to the Resistance, and our heroes set off to find the hidden planet and put an end to Palpatine and the First Order for good.

If I had to describe The Rise of Skywalker in just a few words, I would call it frantic and desperate. This is a movie that seems to be unable to stop for a second to breath or contemplate. Maybe because it knows that the house of cards that is its plot would completely collapse. JJ Abrams remains great at manufacturing excitement. The gang rushes from one catastrophe to the next, from one giant set piece into another, from one revelation to the next. There is no time for things to settle. For the most part, it works in the moment. Then there is the sheer amount of fan service. This movie remains as determined as The Force Awakens to remind the viewer of the original trilogy, even at the expense of telling its own story. That gives the whole thing a feeling of sweaty desperation, that that greatest fear of the people behind this movie is that the viewer might not like it.

One thing the movie does that is absolutely great is that, for the first half of the movie, keeps the central trio of Rey, Finn and Poe together. In the previous two movies, the main characters spent precious little time interacting with each other. Part of that was due to how many characters these movies have tried to juggle, adding characters from the original trilogy with plenty of newcomers. Here, we finally get to see how these characters interact with each other. It is a lot of fun.

Where it started to fall apart for me is when the movie did slow down a little and you could see how empty it was. Mostly, the movie plays the hits. Bits from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi show up. Most of the revelations with Palpatine fell completely flat for me. Kylo Ren’s fate felt underserved, an echo of the past that was not really rooted in some character decision.

I can’t say the fan service didn’t work on me. I teared up a little with Leia’s exit. I loved to see Lando and that brief glimpse of Wedge. New characters, like Zori Bliss, were fun, though I hated to see Rose Tico get sidelined. The ending, which was easy to predict as soon as they announced the title for the movie, worked wonderfully.

The Rise of Skywalker is a movie that is trying very hard to please, to be everything its fans want it to be. The problem is that it doesn’t really have any ideas; all it has is a love of the past. So it trots out things you seen before, maybe gives them a little twist, and shows them to you again. Don’t you remember when the Death Star destroyed Alderaan? Here that destroys another planet. Remember that moment from A New Hope when Han Solo came back and saved Luke during the trench run? What if it wasn’t one ship but hundreds? It can delight in moments, but there is nothing hiding how empty everything is. But it tries so hard.

***

Jumanji: The Next Level

I didn’t have a lot to say about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle when it came out. It took a pretty interesting premise, of a group of teenagers jumping into the bodies of 4 video game characters and executed it well. It was fun, forgettable movie. Jumanji: The Next Level is literally just more of the same. It is still pretty well made and thoroughly enjoyable, with just enough newish wrinkles to keep things fresh, but it is largely repetitive of its predecessor.

The plot is thin. Three of the last movie’s four teens have moved on and are doing well in college. Spencer feels left behind, and wants to refind the confidence he had when he was Smolder Bravestone. So he goes back into the game Jumanji. His friends find out and go after him. The twist this time is that Spencer grandfather, played by DeVito, and his former business partner, played by Glover, are in the area and they get sucked into the game too. When they get there, Spencer is nowhere to be found, and this time his grandfather is Bravestone. So the group sets out to save Spencer and beat this new version of Jumanji.

The characters don’t have as much to work through this time. Spencer is having doubts about himself, but those aren’t actually addressed by anything other than his friends coming after him. The big emotional moments go to Glover and DeVito, two former business partners who have been estranged for fifteen years. They bicker through their guises as The Rock and Kevin Hart through much of the movie, before coming to terms with each other and acknowledging that they are nearing the end of their lives. It works better than it should, but it is pretty thin as presented here.

Jumanji: The Next Level runs it back with the same cast that made the previous movie so enjoyable. Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Dwayne Johnson are all back. All four of the kids return. Even Colin Hanks and Nick Jonas come back as the older version of the kid once trapped in the game for years and his in game avatar, respectively. There are a trio of new additions in Danny DeVito, Danny Glover and Awkwafina. As with before, in the in game characters get a lot more work than the real world ones, but their personalities are carried through well. Black is the stand out here, playing a handful of different “real” people and making each of them clear and distinct. You know who he is just from body language. Similarly, Awkawfina and Kevin Hart do a good job with their switching as well. The normally hyperactive Hart sells the subdued Glover, and Awkwafina does a great job as both the nervous Spencer and as the consistently befuddled DeVito character. The one who sells the movie, and inarguably struggles the most, is Johnson. Through a lot of the movie he does a very entertaining but not especially good DeVito impression. It is comically exaggerated, and its works because of it ridiculousness.

Fortunately, there are quite a few exciting and imaginative set pieces as well. The video game conceit allows them to throw somewhat illogical nonsense on the screen with the need to explanation. The standout is a set piece in a series of hanging bridges across a bottomless pit that keep spinning.

Jumanji: The Next Level is almost strictly just more of the same. When the first one was as much fun as it was, that really isn’t a problem, though it was starting to feel a little stale as this movie drew to its conclusion. Hopefully it inevitable next sequel finds something of a new hook or a twist to expand on this enjoyable formula.

***1/2

What I Watched November 2019

Movies

Harriet – read review here. ***1/2

Parasite – read review here. *****

Motherless Brooklyn – read review here. ****1/2

Midway – read review here. ***

Jojo Rabbit – read review here. ****1/2

Let it Snow – This is a pretty solid teen party movie that is also a Christmas movie. It has a bunch of teenagers having teenager problems while also planning to attend a Christmas Eve party. The only thing really novel or notable in it is the same sex romance subplot, which is pretty well done and an interesting development in this kind of movie. It is overall just really well done. ****

The King – I feel like I should like this less than I do. It isn’t really history, it is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad. But it doesn’t really give you what you want from a movie version of Shakespeare; it instead plays it more like real history. It ends up in this weird middle ground. I found it utterly compelling. Great performances, especially Chalamet as King Henry as he wrestles with living up to what is expected of him as king. His big struggle is how to legitimize his rule while also making his own decisions. I liked it a whole lot. ****

Holiday in the Wild – Why do I watch these Christmas movies? I don’t know. This one is pretty bad. Just like little going on of interest and little that seems Christmas-y about it. **

In the Shadow of the Moon – An interesting, unconventional time travel movie. Boyd Holbrook is a cop who is chasing a criminal that appears every nine years, who discovers that the criminal is actually a time traveller who stops every nine years sent back in time on some kind of mission. It is more interesting than good, I think. Still, it is worth a look. ***

Sextuplets – This is honestly better than I thought it would be. The concept is that a man who grew up an orphan finds out he not only has living relatives, but that he is one of a set of sextuplets put up for adoption by his mother. So he sets off to meet his family. Parts of it work well and are genuinely funny. Sometimes it is just stupid without reason, as the broad sterotypes of his siblings lead to not especially funny hijinks. It isn’t as bad as some comedies I’ve seen, there is real effort here and some good jokes, but in the end more doesn’t work than does. **

Klaus – WOW! This movie is gorgeous. This is some of the best looking animation I’ve seen in a long time, like a modern day 2D animated movie out of the Disney renaissance. The story is fine. Good, even. If it connected with me just a little more, I would say great. This deserves to become a modern Christmas classic, it is just a lot of fun from start to finish. One of the best Netflix has put out. I highly recommend everyone watch it. ****1/2

The Knight Before Christmas – I wondered why I watch these movies up at Holiday in the Wild, and this movie is the answer. A medieval knight gets transported to the modern day and a lovelorn school teacher tries to help him. He wants help to finish his quest and return home, she thinks he needs his head examined. Also, it’s Christmas. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is enjoyably weird. **1/2

Otherhood – This movie is interesting for its protagonists, a comedy starring older women, women whose children are grown having the kind of mid-life crisis movie that men get occasionally. That said, I didn’t find a lot else to like in this movie. There are some funny bits and some heartwarming parts, but it mostly just felt a little flat. **

Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator – A documentary about a celebrity yogi who was shown to be systematically sexually assaulting young women who came to learn yoga from him. It also shows how the whole mythology he made up about himself, stuff like getting a Green Card from Nixon, was a big pack of lies. Interesting, and kind of dispiriting as he pretty much gets away with it. ***1/2

The Great Hack – This is a solid documentary about Cambridge Analytica and essentially how social media is being used as a tool to destroy society. It is infuriating, especially because nothing will change. It is a pretty good movie. ***

21 Bridges – read review here. ***1/2

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – read review here. ***1/2

Ford v. Ferrari – read review here. ****

Charlie’s Angels – read review here. ***½

Hot Rod – This is a modern classic that I feel the need to watch every now and then. It is great. *****

The Pink Panther – This is the remake starring Steve Martin. It isn’t great. Martin has pretty great comic timing and sells the pratfalls, I’m just not sure the movie ever gets past the character of Clouseau. It’s funny enough, but never quite as funny as you want it to be. **1/2

TV

Jack Ryan S2 – I like John Krasinski. I think he does a good job on this show. True to the books, and their author, this show is a right wing fever dream. It is good enough action stuff, but it has some repugnant undertones that make it hard to really recommend and make me not want to spend much more time thinking about it.

She-Ra S4 – This show continues to get stronger as it goes, as it digs deeper into its characters rather than just going bigger. It really feels like the show is moving into some kind of end game here, though. Just a really good cartoon. The murder mystery episode might be my favorite of the series.

Tarzan & Jane S2 – I know this is a show for kids, but this can be done well. See above. This is just sort of silly and flat. Bringing Pellucidar into it near the end was a neat idea, setting up a ER Burroughs connected universe, but I don’t really want to watch that show.

The Devil Next Door – I don’t want to spoil any of this; it is a wild story. Still, a pretty solid kind of true crime documentary that is a little chilling and a little bewildering.

The Man in the High Castle S2-4 – I’ve got a longer post planned, but this is a show that seems to have an identity crisis after every season. Possibly due to changing showrunner every season. It can’t or won’t keep its characters on the same trajectory, so the only one that comes out seeming like a person is John Smith, the American who has risen to the top of the Nazi party. I think it almost finds a satisfactory story in the last season, but overall it was a mess.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance – I want to like this much more than I do. It is a triumph of craftsmanship. The puppetry is astounding. I’ve never seen anything that looks as good as this show. I just wish the story connected with me as strongly. It feels oddly paced and obviously structured. It is a pretty standard fantasy story in a lot of ways. There are great moments and some good characters, but for large parts of its runtime it feels a little like running in circles. I hope there is more to come.

The Toys that Made Us S3 – I think they are running out of toy lines worth making this show about. They are already scraping the bottom of the barrel with the wrestling toys. There is also this corporate bootlicking tone throughout. The Ninja Turtles episode is a good example, where it frames being bought by Nickelodeon was not only the best possible outcome, but an altogether good thing. The show is fine and does a pretty good job with its stated goals of showing how popular toys came to be.

The Good Place – I’ll save saying much about The Good Place until it finishes early next year. It continues to be one of the best shows on television.

Bob’s Burgers S10 – Bob’s Burgers is still solidly good. What do I say about a handful of episodes of a very episodic show? There is a baseline level of quality that Bob’s Burgers never falls below. Here was a handful of pretty good episodes.

DC Shows – All of the DC CW shows are building toward Crisis on Infinite Earths. They are all fairly strong this season. Arrow is moving towards its end and I am three seasons out of date, but it is mostly working. The Flash is going great, except when it gets overly dour in its Crisis build-up. Supergirl is building around the Kara/Lena relationship, which is one of the shows strongest. Batwoman is still establishing its world. It feels a little stifled, stuck on Alice. Alice has been great, but so far Kate has become Batwoman solely to get to her corrupted sister. Black Lightning, as ever, is the show out on its own island. I don’t know that Black Lightning can bring home the ambitious story it is telling, but I am enjoying it for now. I’ll have my review of the last couple of episodes of Titans up soon.

Dark Waters

I have been on a run of really depressing movies. From Queen & Slim to The Report on Amazon Prime to The Irishman on Netflix, I’ve been stuck on some real downers. Dark Waters is not bucking that trend. It shares a lot of similarities with The Report, the biggest one being that despite attempts to frame its conclusion as a triumph, there is a palpable feeling that the situation is irrevocably messed up and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

Dark Waters follows Robert Bilott, a corporate defense attorney, who takes a small case for a family friend, a poor West Virginia farmer whose cattle appear to have been killed by chemicals leaked by the DuPont corporation. As he digs into, it becomes clear that the DuPont’s misdeeds go far beyond inadvertently killing some cows. Soon, the case has consumed Robert’s life and the scope keeps growing. He is one man against one of the most powerful corporations in existence. But he won’t stop.

The cast is impeccable. Mark Ruffalo stars as Bilott, seeming to shrink into his suits. He does not look like a man of great fortitude. Anne Hathaway plays is long suffering wife, supremely overqualified for a largely thankless role. Tim Robbins, Victor Garber, William Jackson Harper, and Bill Paxton play other lawyers who drift in and out of the movie. Tim Robbins has the biggest role as a senior partner at Bilott’s law firm, who largely backs him despite the damage it does to the firm’s reputation.

Dark Waters is largely a movie about exhausting, draining, tedious process of legal work. At first, Bilott is just looking into hazardous chemical stored in the landfill next to his clients farm. Then he realizes that the harm is not caused by a classified hazardous chemical. Then he discovers that the harm is not limited to cattle, but also affects people.Then he learns that DuPont knew how harmful the chemical was. He started with a very small case, but he keeps learning worse and worse information and has to keep digging to get justice for his client. The more he finds, the greater the resistance from DuPont grows. The greater the mountain of paperwork he has to sift through to find the answer. And DuPont plays dirty, reneging on deals, stealing evidence and obfuscating issues.

The set up isn’t exactly a recipe for tension or drama, but Dark Waters maintains plenty of both as it goes. There is an overall oppressive feeling to the movie, as though the rug could be pulled out from under our hero at any moment, and from any part of his life. The case puts stress on his family, on his work relationships, on his health, on his very safety. At any time any of those could collapse. Or he could just lose the case. He navigates it all, keeping the pressure on DuPont but just being indomitable and unflappable.

In the end, Bilott triumphs, though the consequences faced by DuPont for knowingly poisoning thousands of people is shockingly light. That is where the downer part of the ending comes in. Through extraordinary effort and more than a little bit of luck, Bilott was able to get at least justice from DuPont, but this is just one case and the deck is stacked against the people in favor of companies like DuPont. Even when the good guys win, the win does not seem to be enough to stop those like DuPont from just doing it again. That is no fault of Dark Waters, which is a well executed legal drama.

****

Queen & Slim Review

Queen & Slim is a gorgeously shot and well acted romantic drama that ultimately feels more strongly weighted toward style rather than substance. It is a movie that deliberately provokes with how it portrays the police and how they interact with African Americans, but I am not sure it actually has much coherent to say about the issue. I do welcome alternate views on that, though.

The two protagonists, who are not named until near the end of the film. Daniel Kaluuya’s “Slim” and Jodie Turner-Smith’s “Queen” meet for a Tinder date. Queen, a lawyer, had a bad day at work and wants some company. Their date is uncomfortable; the two have little chemistry. They get pulled over on the drive home by a cop who, despite Slim’s completely cooperation, keeps escalating the stop. He just keeps pushing Slim and Slim keeps taking it. Queen, however, pushes back a little. Maybe he doesn’t need to conduct a completely unnecessary search of Slim’s drunk in the freezing cold. When he pulls his gun for absolutely no reason, she gets out of the car. After he fires on her, Slim fights back and the cop ends up dead. With little time to think, the two take off on the run.

The rest of the movie follows them as they run from the police. They don’t really have a plan or a destination, just no other choice with trigger happy cops on their trail. They become unwitting cultural symbols as they continue to evade the cops. As they go, they draw closer together. Forced together by chance, they end up forming something that feels like a real relationship, even as every element of their story is coated in tragedy.

The movie looks amazing. It is a road movie, with the two of them driving all over the eastern United States. Sunrises and sunsets look great, as do the two stars as they watch the countryside pass or each other. There is a lot internal going on, as you can see the characters journeys in their faces as the movie goes. The terror, the elation, the exhaustion. Kaluuya is amazing at this; Turner-Smith is fine. Bokeem Woodbine shows up for a while and is as entertaining as ever.

The movie doesn’t quite come together as more than a disconnected series of stops, other than in the building relationship between Queen and Slim. All of the provocative imagery about police and protests feels like window dressing. This is a movie created with that as the backdrop, that acknowledges those problems, but it is not a movie that helps sort through those tough issues.

Queen & Slim might have hit harder if there hadn’t been movies in the last year or so that explored similar topics with greater focus and skill. For example, last year’s Blindspotting covered some of the same ground, but that movie was more thoughtful and considered while it was no less confrontational. Queen & Slim’s point seems to be that no point can be taken from tragedies like this. Which, fair, but I walked away with a greater memory of some truly wonderful shots rather than anything from the story.

***