Beauty and the Beast Review

This may be the most pointless, unnecessary movie I’ve ever seen. That is a criticism I usually hate – what movie is necessary – but I think it fits here because this movie is almost identical, and somehow inferior, to the 1991 animated film. This Beauty and the Beast movie isn’t bad, like last year’s thoroughly dull Jungle Book remake, but I can’t see any reason to see this movie when the previous one exists.  Tremendous effort has been expended to make a movie that feels a little bit like going through the motions, with some new stuff that subtracts at least as much as it adds to the viewers enjoyment.

If you can’t manage to separate yourself from your memories of the original, which is no mean feat and at odds with Disney’s intentions here, there is still stuff here to enjoy.  The cast is a big part of that enjoyment.  Emma Watson’s Belle is a more active participant that her animated counterpart. This is still a movie that has her rush back to The Beast’s castle to watch the climactic confrontation, but a few additions and angrier line readings makes her more assertive than before. Luke Evans is, as usual, better than everything around him. Any scene with Evans’s Gaston is better than any without.  And Josh Gad manages to turn dim witted lackey Le Fou into something resembling a real character, which is no mean feat.

The only weak link in the cast is Dan Stevens as The Beast, but that might be more him having to act through a cg character when most of the rest are flesh and blood.  It’s not like his household servants, voiced by the likes of Ian McKellan and Ewan McGregor, are doing much more than providing voices.  Still, it is Stevens that must carry one half of the romantic couple and his Beast fails to even once feel real.

The musical numbers are still good, though the new ones much less so than the returning classics. Some of the singing voices aren’t the best, but that works with the actual, physical performances.

One thing that really kills the movie is padding.  Freed from animations costly restrictions, the run time on this balloons out over two hours, with none of the new scenes adding anything positive to the film. We don’t need to know about the tragic fate of Belle’s mother.  The 1991 version was lean perfection; this one feels flabby and bloated.  It sticks too close to the original to fix any of its admittedly minor problems, but when it strays it adds virtually nothing.  My complaints seem somewhat paradoxical; I want the movie to have changed more from the animated version, but I don’t like it when it did.  But that is the problem with hewing so closely to another version of the story.  The original had a vision; this one doesn’t.  It has that movie’s vision, so anytime its own voice creeps in it stands out.

Beauty and The Beast is pretty, but hollow. It is technically well made in many respects, but I don’t see much in it to recommend to anyone.  Disney is making a cottage industry out of live action versions of their animated classics, but the third time’s the charm for me; I’m out.  From Cinderella to The Jungle Book to Beauty and the Beast, I have seen enough bland regurgitations of animated films I grew up watching. These movies are not for me.

**1/2

What I Read in February 2017

I read lots of mysteries last month, but nothing that really stood out. I also started on my reading project for this year. Next month is likely to be pretty slow, since I will be playing so much Zelda. This is me working my way through the stack of books I got for Christmas.

Black Coffee

Charles Osborne & Agatha Christie

The cover to this book is misleading. It has Agatha Christie’s name in big letters, but she didn’t write this. It is a novelization of a play she wrote starring Hercule Poirot. Charles Osborne actually wrote the book, using her play as the outline. That is clear as soon as you start reading; this doesn’t read like Christie. Her hand is evident in the plotting. This is not her best Poirot mystery, but it is clearly hers. In this Poirot is called to the home of a celebrated physicist who has created a new type of explosive. He thinks someone wants to steal it and wants Poirot to prevent that. Unfortunately, soon after Poirot gets there the physicist turns up dead. It is a good enough read, even if it feels like counterfeit Christie.

The Body in the Library

Agatha Christie

From Poirot to Marple, this time in a book actually written by Agatha Christie. Though this one isn’t much better. I liked Body in the Library, there is a certain level of entertaining competence that no Christie mystery I’ve read doesn’t meet, but this is no And Then There Were None. A family finds a dead body of a girl they don’t know in their library. Several investigators look into, including Marple, and they have trouble even identifying the body, let alone discovering who killed the girl or put her in the library. Figuring out her identity leads to an old man with an unusual inheritance situation and a handful of suspects for the murder. It all plays out pretty conventionally, with twists and turns and is perfectly engaging, but it isn’t especially memorable.

The Vanished Man

Jeffrey Deaver

This is a case of me getting exactly what I asked for, but not what I wanted.  For Christmas, I asked for mystery books, with no author or series listed.  The ones I would have asked for, like Dorothy Sayers, I have pretty well read everything.  I had hoped to get something new that I could then start reading a lot of.  Jeffrey Deaver’s The Vanished Man is a mystery, but it is not at all the sort of mystery I wanted.  I wanted Columbo, and this feels more like CSI.  

I don’t mean to say that this book is bad, only that it isn’t quite what I wanted to read.  It does set up an interesting case for our protagonists to solve; I just don’t like how it deals with the solving.  It features a culprit that uses stage magic and escape artist tricks to evade capture, but Deaver seems to relish spoiling the how for the reader before his characters can figure it out. That can work to build tension, with the reader wondering if the hero will see through the ruse in time, but here is just kills the discovery, leaving a not especially enthralling procedural.

The Pickwick Papers

Charles Dickens

One of my reading goals this year is to read the Charles Dickens novels that I have not yet managed to read.  So I started chronologically with The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which was not a maybe the best choice.  It is the first book that Dickens published and it feels like it. It is essentially plotless and it really doesn’t figure out what it is until more than a dozen chapters in.  It eventually settles into something of a Don Quixote vibe, following the adventures of the naive Mr. Pickwick and his much more knowledgeable servant Sam Weller.

Dickens creates some great characters here in Pickwick, Sam and the rapscallion Alfred Jingle, but it lacks that central plot to pull everything through.  There is no real goal or driving factor other than Pickwick getting out and seeing England outside of his tiny corner of London.  Pickwick Papers definitely takes a while to find its footing.  It starts as a series of vignettes where Pickwick and his club are the butt of every joke, but soon Dickens switches things up to where the various foibles of the people they meet are as much the source of humor as Pickwick and his friends.  Which is good, because there is only so much enjoyment to be gleaned from reading about a hapless old man make a fool out of himself.  After he meets with Sam Weller, Pickwick learns and grows from each encounter, gaining greater understanding of the world and human nature.  The book has its moments, but it is largely a bit of amusing nothing.

Super Mario Replay: Super Mario Bros 3

Again, I am just going to link to my previous Super Mario Bros 3 blog post. This is a game that I come back to fairly often and I don’t have anything in the way of fresh realizations from my recent play through. As much as I like to point out Super Mario Bros 2 as an underrated gem, its real problem is being sandwiched between possibly the most influential video game ever in Super Mario Bros and a legitimate, best game of all-time masterpiece in Super Mario Bros 3. SMB3 does essentially everything right, gets all the juice it possibly can out of the NES and most importantly is just a blast to play. It is possibly for a knowledgeable player to blast through in an hour or so and is just as much fun for a novice to wander around in for five.

Playing the three NES games as the All-Stars version did a lot to make the experience feel fresh. The games still play like they should, but there is novelty to playing these NES games when they look like early SNES games. Other than the graphics, the one big change this game brings is save functionality. Being able to save would fundamentally change the series, but all it does with these games made without that feature in mind is let you play the game at your own pace. That is not a big deal in this age of Virtual Console save states, but you do play a game differently when you have to beat it all in one sitting or start over from the beginning. I don’t think it will ever be more than a curiosity, but I am glad it exists. Next time, I’ll probably stick with the originals, but I am glad to have seen these versions of the game.

Kong: Skull Island Review

Kong Skull Island is the second would be blockbuster of what looks to be a packed March.  It has a stellar cast and some amazing effects work and is just all around a great time.  It is a monster movie that doesn’t hide its monster. It doesn’t play coy or spend a lot of time with buildup; Kong Skull Island knows what viewers have come to see and it delivers immediately.

Kong Skull Island starts with John Goodman’s Randa begging for one chance to explore a newly discovered island in the Pacific as the US pulls its troops out of Vietnam.  He gets his last ditch approval by playing into Cold War scares and has Col. Packard’s (Sam Jackson) helicopter unit assigned to escort them on their mission.  Once there, they discover Kong and everything goes to hell.

Kong walks a fine line with its human characters, and I wouldn’t argue with you if you say it stumbles.  It kind of uses that wretched Michael Bay shorthand to introduce its characters, something that usually signals that the viewer is in for a bad time.  Here, though, that shorthand is not mistaken for actual character development. It only gives sketches of the more than dozen characters to go to the island because it simply doesn’t have time for more.  Kong needs viewers to like the characters at least a little, so they care when all but a handful of them are summarily killed off right after they hit the island.  But it can’t have the viewer care too much, because then seeing them all killed hurts.  It also doesn’t want to tip its hand as to who will soon be getting a close up look at the bottom of a monster’s foot, at least in regards to the soldiers.  With the civilian half of the expedition it is obvious.  A few characters develop into something more than that initial sketch, including John C Reilly’s Marlow, Packard and a few of the rank and file soldiers, Shea Whigham’s Cole and Jason Mitchell’s Mills.  Would be leads Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson have little to do other than be the voices of reason in an insane world.  

The star of the movie, though, is Kong.  Here he is reimagined as a skyscraper tall bigfoot. He stands upright and fights like a wrestler.  While he has a sad backstory, he is not the soulful ape of Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake from a decade ago.  Here is more a vast and unknowable god.  The best parts of the movie are the parts where Kong is on screen.  

The movie is a mishmash of tons of things.  It makes some motions toward the classic King Kong story, but they are fleeting and reimagined.  The island natives are peaceful and accommodating if not exactly friendly.  They are certainly not trying women up to offer them as a sacrifice to Kong.  Kong seems to like Larson’s character, but it is no weird tragic love story.  It also has allusions to Heart of Darkness, or at least to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and Moby Dick.  It makes for some muddled messaging, but the anti-war intent comes through clearly. Sometimes an enemy doesn’t exist until you go looking for it.

Visually it is stunning, with Skull Island beautifully realized.  Director Vogt-Roberts has said that Princess Mononoke was among the inspirations for the creatures of the island and that comes through. To go with a genuinely wonderful island, there are at least a dozen beautiful, memorable shots.  The movies stunning posters are representative of how the entire movie looks.  

There are deficiencies in Kong Skull Island, but none that ever threatened to wipe the big silly grin from my face. It has the energy of a classic B-movie; it feels a lot like some of the better Godzilla movies.  It is that kind of silliness made with the sort of lavish budget that those movies couldn’t even dream about.  It is easily the most fun I’ve had at a movie in months.

****

Early Zelda: Breath of the Wild Thoughts

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is amazing.  It more than lives up to the considerable hype.  I love it and am glad to say that the few trepidations I had going in have proved unfounded.  While most people seemed to be won over instantly at the idea of an open world Zelda, I was scared that Breath of the Wild would play like an open world game.  I feared that the tightly designed, often dense worlds of the Legend of Zelda would be replaced by a blandly generated open world. Both of those fears have been assuaged by playing nearly 20 hours of the game over its first  week after release.

While the openness is the first thing that grabs the player upon starting up the game, it obvious pretty soon that Nintendo and Zelda Producer Eiji Aonuma didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  The prerelease hype and the reviews have all focused on its ties to the original Legend of Zelda, and that game’s influence is clearly felt, but it doesn’t ignore the series past that. The structure of the game has been rethought, continuing a trend that arguably began with Skyward Sword and was very evident in A Link Between Worlds, but the moment to moment gameplay is just another step along the evolutionary path that the series has been on since the series went 3D with Ocarina of Time.

I understand that many people found Skyward Sword stifling, but it controlled like a dream.  People will argue about the motion controls for sword fighting; I think they are being ridiculous, but setting the motion aspects aside, Skyward Sword was a delight to move around in.  That is something that has been true of the series since it went 3D.  Few 3D games feel as good to move around in as the Zelda games do.  There is a reason that so many games stole Z-targeting from the series.  Compare that to popular open world games like Grand Theft Auto or Bethesda’s output and it is night and day.  The player character in Skyrim glides over the world, never really seeming to interact with it.  Some of that has to do with the fact that Elder Scrolls games are designed to be played from the first person perspective, some of it has to do with the fact that Bethesda games have big, well considered worlds but play like janky pieces of crap.  Breath of the Wild takes the open world, but it still plays like Zelda, a feat that I didn’t think could be achieved, but they did it.  I thought at best we would have an Assassin’s Creed situation, games that play fine,but the player interacts with the world in very limited ways.  

Then there was my fear that wewould get the usual open world, which usually translates to empty world.  The really open Zelda game was Wind Waker, which featured both small dense islands to explore and wide and empty ocean.  That was built into the game: the ocean is big and empty. The best Zelda games have forsaken openness for density. A Link to the Past’s Hyrule is not especially big, but there is a lot to find and do.  People love Majora’s Mask and that game is undeniably tiny.  The clear winner as far as game density goes is Skyward Sword.  There is the big, largely empty sky, but that exists mostly to let the player fly around on the back of a bird, once on the ground there is always something to do or see.  It essentially turned theoverworld areas into open air dungeons.  Their density made for difficult traversal, but unlocking the secrets of each of the three main areas never stopped being enticing. While not as dense as Skyward Sword, Breath of the Wild has kept that denseness while expanding Hyrule bigger that it has ever been before. This is an open world where little piece of the map has something to do or see.  Maybe it is just a simple rock moving puzzle to find a little korok spirit, maybe it is a shrine, perhaps a rare or unique specimen of flora or fauna and sometimes, rarely, it is just a beautiful view.

That beautiful view thing might be something people could say for many games, but I have not seen a game that astounds me like this game has with how it looks.  It is not the most technically impressive game in existence, but its art design is unparalleled. I have only explored at best a quarter of Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule and perhaps I’ve only seen the best of it, but if it can maintain this level of things to do and see over the course of what promises to be a nearly 80 hour game, it will certainly go down in history as an all-time great.

Games of Lordly Caliber

In the last two weeks there have been two great releases on the dying WiiU.  In fact, not just on the dying WiiU, but on its also dying Virtual Console.  Both of them are n64 games and both are games that meant a lot to me as a youngster: Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber and Harvest Moon 64.

I was an RPG kid.  I fell in love with the genre thanks to Nintendo Power’s Final Fantasy 2 (I know it is actually 4, but it was originally released her as two, that is what the NP guide called it, and in my recollection it is always going to be 2) guide. That is right, the guide not the game. I couldn’t have been more than 6 years old when I saw that and it was everything I wanted to see. I hadn’t yet read Lord of the Rings or any similar fantasy, but I loved movies like Willow and The Princess Bride which transported me to fantastical worlds.  That was much like the joy I got out of games like The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Quest or Legacy of the Wizard.  That Nintendo Power guide made Final Fantasy 2 look like that turned up to 11.  Since I didn’t have an SNES, I set about looking for the first Final Fantasy. I eventually found it in a Wal-Mart bargain bin along with a treasure trove of NES classics that I knew nothing about.  I still wonder what all else was in that under $10 bin in which Wal-Mart was attempting to clear out it back NES stock to make room for the growing Genesis and newly released SNES.  Though I had played some RPGs before and despite that fact that Final Fantasy 1 was not much like Final Fantasy 2, finding that game thanks to reading that guide is what made me a JRPG fan.

That did not mean I actually got to play them.  I lost the Christmas console war to my brother, so at a date as late as 95 (I can’t recall exactly), we got a Genesis instead of an SNES.  In a happier world that would have led me to Phantasy Star, but I was not so lucky as to even know that it existed.  Instead, I spent a couple of years playing Sonic the Hedgehog, Golden Axe and X-Men 2: The Clone Wars. Good games all, but nothing that could scratch my RPG itch.  Eventually I saved my allowance to buy my own SNES and finally seized my chance to experience that Golden Age of RPGs. After a few years SNES games got harder to find and it became obvious what must happen: we needed to upgrade consoles again.

I already knew that all the RPGs had gone to the PlayStation; it was 1999 and I was a tuned in 14-year-old.  I read EGM and Game Informer, not nonsense rags like Nintendo Power.  But as much as I wanted to play Final Fantasy VII or Xenogears, I knew I had to have Ocarina of Time.  Though I didn’t own either system, I had played both of them; I did have friends. I had played Mario 64 and it was a revelation.  I had also played Crash Bandicoot and it was a game I had played. If Ocarina of Time was the game that all the magazines made it out to be, then how could I not play it?  The other game for the N64 that I felt I had to play was Harvest Moon 64.

I can’t tell you precisely why that was.  Maybe it was my youthful iconoclasm.  My friends and playground acquaintances were enraptured over the violence of Goldeneye and Turok, but while I enjoyed playing games with my friends, the games themselves didn’t really do anything for me.  I didn’t object to the violence; I was 14 and that was objectively the coolest shit ever. That 90s extreme trash was still popular, though waning.  The ads for Harvest Moon 64 were like something from another planet. It features the main character running through the woodlands, trailed by his faithful dog, with a resolute look on his face. At the bottom an anime girl in coveralls fed birds out of the palm of her hand, while the text detailed the relaxing challenge the game would provide. It looked cute, though not childish; the characters looked familiar – the style is not too different from Pokémon – but the game looked different.  I was entranced by its pastoral siren’s song.

It looked like RPGs that I loved, but relocated to a new milieu.  That was a move that had paid off before.  While most RPGs stuck with the usual medieval fantasy, Earthbound had blown my mind by setting that same kind of game in familiar everyday territory.  Pokémon did something similar, with its regular town setting contrasted with the monster collecting and battling.  Harvest Moon 64 seemed to taking it to a more rural setting.  Once I played the game, I realized that it wasn’t quite what I had imagined.

Harvest Moon 64 is largely an RPG with farming replacing the fighting, but it ends up feeling more like The Sims than RPGs that came out around the same time.  It combined a surprisingly addictive farm management game with a simple but solid life sim.  The main gameplay might be the farming, but what drew me back for months were the relationships I built up with the townsfolk in the game.  Despite a cast that would now be called limited and the player’s limited ability to interact with them, at the time it was brand new.  That the game had even somewhat life-like townsfolk back then was amazing to me.  I spent tons of time learning the routines of the various shopkeepers and eligible bachelorettes.  I spent even more time going to the library to use their dial-up internet to look up character’s favorite foods or when special events happened.  

That dial-up internet part is a big part of the appeal, I believe.  I never had a lot of information while playing HM64, and that I did manage to get off the internet often proved unreliable.  Sussing everything out was entirely up to me.  I think that is part of the reason no Harvest Moon game has grabbed like HM64 in the years since. I’ve played some and had fun with them, but I usually make it through couple of seasons before wandering off for some a little more immediately rewarding.  Usually, I spend some time looking up how to romance or befriend various characters before getting a little annoyed that it takes more time than I am willing to put into.

If opaque games with little documentation about how they work are your thing, then the other sort of RPG for the N64 that hit VC is for you.  I don’t know that I’ve ever played a game as purposefully obtuse as Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber.  Nowadays it would likely drive me crazy; back then it just seemed deep and mysterious.

I love Ogre Battle 64, but I didn’t have that time of intense longing for it that I did for Harvest Moon 64.  The only real story about me wanting it is about Final Fantasy Tactics.  Before we got that N64, I did borrow a PlayStation from a cousin and one of the games he had was Final Fantasy Tactics.  Unfortunately, he didn’t loan us a memory card, so I never saw more than the first few battles, but those were enough to convince me that it was one of my all-time favorite games.  I looked into other games like that and learned about Tactics Ogre, but I never saw or had the opportunity to play. When my family went N64 over PS, I thought I would never have the chance to play either of them.  Then I saw Ogre Battle 64 in EGM.  It looked like everything I wanted and it was on the system I had.  So on our annual trip to Toys’R’Us, I used my saved up mowing money to pay the $60+ asking price for the game. I’ve never regretted it.

While it doesn’t play much like FFT, it is a game with a very similar focus, understandable since both the Ogre Battle series and the Ivalice Final Fantasy games sprang from the mind of Yasumi Matsuno.  They are both game that are about war in much closer detail than other RPGs and they are games with more complex looks at characters than the simplistic good vs evil that most games presented.  It had the same look and feel, while presenting a game that was more than good enough.

I love this game, but that is in spite of its various systems, some of them hidden, that determine how you proceed in the game.  Class unlock when you have characters that meet the requirements, but the game doesn’t even hint at what those requirements are.  That includes owning the classes starting equipment.  There is a morality system for both the army and the individual units.  Your current standing is visible, but it is not spelled out how to affect that standing.  Maps have things hidden about them, but it takes either knowing where to look or systematically scouring each map after it has been beaten.  Now nearly all of this game’s secrets are available on the internet for you to find, playing it back in 2000 I felt like a pioneer, venturing out into the great unknown. Finding out that there are other spell casting pedras, but now where they are meant searching for missing elements. Looking for the equipment to unlock the Dragoon or Princess or Lich classes.  Learning how to get the good ending, or the bad ending, or any of the other four endings.

My first, and to date only complete, play through started out well, but somewhere about ⅔ through the game I somehow switched from the good path to the bad path, meaning I missed out on both the awesome characters you get for being good, cool carry-overs from the SNES game I never played, and I missed out on the badass evil characters you can recruit instead. I took the mediocre path.  I have long wanted to go back and do it right.  And do it wrong.  
I can’t currently speak to the specific details of how these games play, I haven’t put more than an hour or so into either of them for more than a decade, but they are chief among the games I think of when I think back to my days playing the N64.  Yes, I spent the better part of a year playing Smash Bros with a few friends most days after school; yes, I played through Ocarina of Time no less than four times.  However, Harvest Moon 64 and Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber are certainly their equal in my memories of that system being my primary gaming platform.  I am glad they are on the VC for new fans to find them.

What I Watched in Feb 2017

Movies

Good Will Hunting – This movie is really, really good. It is easy to see why both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck became stars off of this and Robin Williams is both amazing and restrained. I wish I had seen this a long time ago. ****1/2

Ocean’s Twelve – The plot of this movie is overcomplicated – not confusing, just somewhat pointlessly circular – and it doesn’t have the oomph of its predecessor, but sometimes all you need to be enjoyable is to have a truly stellar cast apparently having a good time, as well as at the very least competence in other aspects. ***1/2

Immortals – I wanted to like this movie, I really did. There are few things I like more than gaudy fantasy epics. But Immortals is mostly a slog. It trudges along for most of it runtime and then when it finally gets fun at the end it feels really unearned. It just isn’t very good. **1/2

Lost in Space – The most notable thing about this movie is the astoundingly terrible CGI. It is really trying, but it is a contemporary of The Mummy Returns and it shows. Otherwise, it is a movie that can’t quite find its tone. Oldman is playing everything really campy while Matt Leblanc is trying to be Han Solo, making for an awkward mix. **1/2

John Wick 2 – Read review here. ****1/2

LEGO Batman – Read review here. ***1/2

The Princess Bride – Yep, it’s still great. *****

Predator – It is a solid combination of horror and action, everyone knows. Predator is good stuff. ****1/2

Raising Arizona – This fills in a gap in my Coens watching, and it is another of their more comedic movies. It is really good, though I don’t know that it will be the go to that some others have become for me. ****1/2

Robocop – I wish I liked this as much as other people do. I see it and recognize what is good about it, but I don’t much enjoy it. ****

The Monster Squad – I am sure I saw this as a kid, but I barely remembered and watching it again, along with the previous 4 movies on this list as part of the really fun FThisFest twitter film festival, reminded me that it was pretty great. It is kids fighting classic monsters. It has some weak points, but overall is a lot of fun. ***1/2

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – The Lonely Island boys have another underrated gem here. I don’t know if I like Popstar quite as much as I liked Hot Rod, but it is still a ton of fun. The fake pop songs that Conner4real sings are perfect. Really, this is a constant delight. ****1/2

Trainwreck – This movie got rave reviews a few years ago, but it didn’t really do anything for me. I’m not saying it was bad, but I didn’t connect with the characters and it was only intermittently funny. I have similar problems with most Apatow movies; their funny moments are offset but an equal number of tedious sections. ***

What We Do In The Shadows – This movie is great. It is a mockumentary about a group of vampires living in the same house. It is just them going around dealing with regular and vampire problems. It is hard to explain, but it is great. *****

Oscar – Stallone was not the right choice to play the lead in this adaptation of a French play, but other than his sometimes cumbersome performance this movie sings. It was pretty well hated upon release and almost forgotten since, but I really liked it. It doesn’t quite reach Importance of Being Earnest levels, but it is close.****

Rocknrolla – I still like this movie. Some days I feel like I’m the only one left on the Guy Ritchie bandwagon. This is a lesser movie than Lock Stock or Snatch, but it is still highly entertaining crime stuff. There are a ton of threads and they don’t come together as well as things did in his other crime movies, but each of the plots are pretty fun. ****

Heathers – A classic from the 80’s that I had never seen. It is some kind of weird anti-high school movie, like a much darker take on Mean Girls, but it is mostly enjoyable. ****

David Brent: Life on the Road – Ricky Gervais returns to the character that made him famous, but he doesn’t really have anything new to bring to things. This is essentially an extra-long episode of The Office, only without the good parts. There is no one to root for, just a despicable man being oblivious and awful for 90 minutes. Brent works when he is the boss because people are forced to listen to him. Now that he’s knocked it is just watching him be terrible and pathetic. **

The Great Wall – Read review here. ***

Sour Grapes – This is a documentary I watched on Netflix about selling high priced wines and how one man fooled a ton of the buyers. It is really slow getting to the good part, the actual scam, spending a lot of its run time setting up the people who play a part in this drama. Still, it is a decent story, with a cunning guy running a not particularly well thought out scam, but a scam that worked because no one really looked into it for a few years. ***

The Lost World: Jurassic Park – I love Steven Spielberg, but this movie is an incompetent piece of crap. It is everything that could have gone wrong with first Jurassic Park. I hate it. *

Girlfriend’s Day – I like this movie a lot in theory, it is a comedy noir starring Bob Odenkirk, but it is only about 70 minutes long, not a problem on its own, which doesn’t really give enough time to explore its weirdness to a satisfactory conclusion. Still, it is entertaining if a little unfulfilling. **1/2

Laura – I didn’t really know what I was getting into with this one, other than it is an old noir movie with Vincent Price in a supporting role. It is strange, but compelling. For a 70 year old movie it is really enjoyable. ****

TV

A Series of Unfortunate Events – This was certainly something. It is a children’s show, though one that is both very dark and very literate. It certainly isn’t for everybody, but it is just about perfect at being what it is. The children have surprisingly strong performances, as do all the adults, played mostly by highly recognizable actors. The story so far is fairly simple: the Baudelaire parents are killed in a fire and their three children are sent to a series of guardians. A series of guardians because they all prove unsuitable, in the case of series villain Count Olaf, or end up dead. It settles into a pattern early on, but breaks it by the end and the second season should change things up some more. It is a really solid series.

Santa Clarita Diet – The man behind this show, Victor Fresco, was also responsible for Better off Ted and Andy Richter Controls the Universe, two shows I like a whole lot. I didn’t like Santa Clarita Diet as much in this first season. It was starting at a disadvantage, because I don’t much care for zombies. It leans into the zombie stuff hard early, with some off putting gore and gross out moments, but in the second half the family stuff comes on stronger. The family of characters is very believable, especially for a sitcom. They actually feel like a family. There is also some great humor; really, the show is just solid.

Better Off Ted – I’ve written about how much I like Better Off Ted before. Watching Victor Fresco’s new show (see above) made me want to take a trip down memory lane. It holds up and Portia di Rossi is an underrated comic actress.

Taboo – I am toying with a full post on this show, but it is safe to say that I really liked how this show turned out. The middle part did have some extended Tom Hardy doing Tom Hardy things for no apparent purpose, but in general I really liked it. At the very least when I get a chance I am going to rewatch the whole thing to see if the themes work. Hopefully it gets a second season, especially now that the show has dispensed with a lot of the mystery around Hardy’s character and let the viewer in a little more. As long as more of this show has good actors clearly having a lot of fun I will be there.

CW Superheroes – Quick check ins here: Supergirl has been mostly really good, though I’d be happier without the Mon-El romance subplot, The Flash continues to be strong even when its reach exceeds its grasp and Legends and Arrow are both much stronger this year than last.

Riverdale – I’ve only seen the first two episodes, but this is teenager soap opera trash at its finest. I want to let it get a little further in before I make any real judgements, but they are on the right track.

Logan Review

There is a strange paradox within Logan, Hugh Jackman’s final outing as Wolverine.  Logan is a movie that doesn’t require any previous knowledge of the 9 film franchise, in which Jackman has appeared as Wolverine in each. (Not counting the only loosely connected Deadpool)  But it also a movie that doesn’t really work with affection built up over the course of the seventeen years that he has been playing the character, or with Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier.  This is a movie built to be its own thing, but also a movie built up to be a well-earned farewell.  

It is hard to overstate how strong the opening of this movie it.  It sets the X-Men, reduced to just Wolverine and Professor X, along with a fore hire Caliban as the aged Xavier’s live in nurse, in their bleakest setting yet.  Yes, even more bleak than Days of Future Past’s nigh apocalypse.  Here, mutants have been all but wiped off the map. Logan makes his living driving a limo, while Professor X remains locked in a fallen water tower suffering from Alzheimer’s.  Logan is also worse for wear; he doesn’t heal like he used to and can’t even get his claws to pop properly.  Viewers have grown to love these actors in these roles, but here they have found an enemy they can never defeat: time.  When a mysterious nurse and tough guy Donald Pierce show up, Logan and Xavier are pulled into taking a young girl across the country to an Eden that may or may not exist.

Jackman gives probably his best performance as the aged Logan.  Every movement hurts him and his memories haunt him.  It is clear watching him that this is a man for whom every day is pain.  Stewart has always been good as Professor X, even when he hasn’t had much to do.  Here he plays Xavier as physically and mentally decrepit.  It is heartbreakingly believable.  There are some great newcomers to the franchise as well.  Dafne Keen as Laura is really good.  She is feral and believably dangerous despite her small stature.  And Boyd Holbrook is a delight as the menacing and faux amiable Donald Pierce.

Its action scenes, again especially the early ones, are really good. There is a car chase that has shades of Mad Max: Fury Road and some absurdly violent fight scenes with Logan and Laura.  This is the first Wolverine movie that really centers on the violence and more realistic mechanics of a man who fights with super sharp blades on his hands.  It is undeniably gruesome, but also completely in keeping with the rest of the film.  Logan is well shot all around, with clear action and some gorgeous shots.

Where the movie fails is in the second half, where it tries to take its themes to their conclusion.  Leaving aside the effective but just short of laughably last scene, the movie doesn’t move smoothly from its start to its conclusion.  I can’t say what Logan or Laura has learned or how they have changed from start to finish.  The movie constantly evokes the classic Western Shane, but the themes of Shane don’t really fit with the themes of Logan.  That movie ends with Shane — likely dying from a gunshot — leaving the idyllic valley because his guns have no place there.  That is not the ending this movie finds. There are a few scenes where the mutants form something of a family, but the relationship between Logan and Laura never really changes after he truly meets her. Instead of developing promising villains, Pierce is completely sidelined.  

I am happy that a superhero movie is dark and serious, but the catch with being serious is that is runs the risk of people taking you seriously.  For all that Logan deals with serious, interesting subjects, it still falls back on genre clichés at the end.  It may want to evoke themes similar to those in films like Shane, but it doesn’t have the thematic death. Logan is undeniably well made, but all it has to offer is pain and suffering.

****

Now Playing in Feb 2017

Beaten

Super Mario Land 2 – read about it here.

Super Mario Bros 2 – read about it here.

Fire Emblem Heroes – Nintendo’s latest mobile game is the game that I was afraid they’d make since they announced they were doing mobile games. For the most part their FTP games have been fairly consumer friendly, from Mario Run’s pay once for the whole game policy to Pokémon Picross’s hard cap of $30 it will take from the player. Fire Emblem Heroes looks like a FTP game targeting big spending whales. That doesn’t really affect me, since I am not going to spend any money on this game. Still, with no money spent, I have managed to clear all but the last couple of stages on the hardest difficulty. It is Fire Emblem light, with a mix of your favorite characters from across the series. While there is considerable depth in the game’s skill system, the maps and battles are so simplified that it hardly matters. It isn’t a true Fire Emblem experience, but it is fun enough to pull out for 10 minutes during my lunch break. Still, while I might check in occasionally as new content drops, I am pretty will done with it at this point.

Ongoing

Terra Battle – After fiddling around with Fire Emblem Heroes for a week or two, I redownloaded this FTP game that I had some fun with last year. There is a lot to like in this game, with its appealing mix of puzzle and rpg gameplay and a very deep lore and effective world building. However, like most FTP gatcha games, the monetization elements really get in the way of actually enjoying in the gameplay. I mean, there is a fun game in here, but it is hard to find it through a lot of junk. I think I’m done with these free phone games for a while again, at least until Nintendo adds plenty of more content to Fire Emblem.

Hyrule Warriors –

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The combination of opportunity and hype for Breath of the Wild got me to spend some time with Hyrule Warriors. It is a Musuo game, sometimes those hit the spot but I have yet to play one that ends up being more than a middling experience. I only cleared the first four or five maps, but this is a lot of fun. There is a wide variety of playable characters and the game appears to be just full of Zelda fan service. I won’t be finishing this game anytime soon, since I am dumping it for Breath of the Wild as soon as I can, but I will come back to it.

Yakuza 0 –

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This seems to be the first Yakuza game that is becoming a hit here in the states and I am glad if this series is getting its long deserved recognition. I only played the first two chapters and this is more of what I absolutely loved about Yakuza 4 and 5. It has some minor improvements, but the games were already really good. I haven’t got far enough to really get into the game, but I expect I will love it when I finally do.

Dragon Quest VIII – I didn’t put as much time into this as I had hoped to. I just didn’t spend a lot of time with my 3DS and I let my brother take the cart for a week or two. I loved this game when I first played it more than a decade ago (? … !!!!!) and through the first half dozen or so hours it holds up. The loss of graphical fidelity hurts some. Dragon Quest VII isn’t the most complex game; a lot of its appeal is in its verisimilitude. It removes the abstractions of scale that many games have with their world map. DQ8 is mostly to scale. They kept that scale here, but the illusion doesn’t work as well when the game doesn’t look as good. Still, it is a solid game.

Super Mario Bros 3 – I started this and cleared the first couple of worlds. I should be done with it before too much longer; it is not a long game. Though the All-Stars version adds a save feature, the game was not designed with that in mind. I really haven’t changed my mind much about the game; it is absolutely one of the best games ever made.

Super Mario 64 – I skipped ahead a few games in my Mario series replay because as excellent as nearly all Mario games are, I needed a change of pace. Mario 64 is that change of pace. It has been a long time since I played it, long enough that many parts of the game don’t come completely natural to me like they do with Mario 3 or Mario World. Still, a lot of this game is purely iconic. I should be done with it not long after I finish Mario 3 and should have a post ready to go not much later.

Robotrek – I am progressing slowly, but I am still working on it. I will get this game beaten sooner rather than later.

Upcoming

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – I couldn’t be more pumped for this. I’m getting it for WiiU, where it will make a fine farewell to a tragically overlooked console and likely be worth quite a bit of money down the road. This is likely to knock everything else on this list around, because I will be playing Zelda forever.

Super Mario World – I am skipping around just a bit to play Super Mario 64, but I will get to this sooner rather than later.

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island – After World, I will move on to this. Playing the GBA version on Virtual Console, as that is the only one available to me.

Lufia 2 & Terranigma – I will get to these last few SNES games, but they are on the back burner a little bit. I mean, Breath of the Wild.

Frustrated Hype

There is no game coming out this year that I am more excited for than The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which I should have in my hands already and I’ll see you in a couple of years when I come up for breath. Hell, I don’t think I’ve been this excited for a game since the similarly delayed Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess a decade ago. Still, there is something in the early reactions that I find incredibly annoying. The game is getting the same kind of hype that helped contribute to me losing interest in Game of Thrones. Like with that TV/book series, much of Zelda’s early lauding is built on tearing down what came before it. As someone who has had a lot of fun with those games, it finds that turns me away more than it gets me interested. I doubt I will result in a clean break for me with Zelda like it did with A Song of Ice and Fire, at least partly because I still really like what Nintendo is putting out and partly because I like Zelda a lot more than I ever enjoyed George R R Martin’s work.

Today!

Today!

While its fans’ crapping on the rest of the genre wasn’t what turned me off to A Song of Ice and Fire, it did make it easier for to just decide to give up on the series. I dug into the series a year to two before A Feast for Crows came out and enjoyed it. Then A Feast for Crows hit and I found it rather underwhelming. When the promised second half didn’t show up the next year, or the year after, I kind of started to lose interest. At least, I did until it was announced that HBO was working on a TV adaptation. That sparked a reread and the realization that once the shock of the discovery was gone, I didn’t really like the books that much. That is the biggest reason I am not into the series anymore; it kept my interest through the rush of its twists and turns, but I didn’t like anything else about it.

What really didn’t help the situation were my online interactions with GoT fans. The primary method I’ve seen fans of the series use to build up it up is by tearing down other fantasy series. ASoIaF/GoT is better than Wheel of Time because it is so real. It is so dark and gritty, unlike all that other silly fantasy crap. Not only did I find these arguments unconvincing, it was also frustrating to see stuff I liked consistently put down by people hoping to push something that I really didn’t like. Being more realistic is not necessarily a positive thing in a fantasy series. Being dark and gritty is often just code for being cynical and pre-teen edgy. I am glad for fans of the series to have as faithful and successful an adaptation as Game of Thrones appears to be, but it success doesn’t render other similar series inferior.

That is the same feeling I am getting from some of Breath of the Wild’s hype. Nintendo is purposefully comparing their new Zelda to the original Legend of Zelda. That is fine, and it appears to have resulted in a truly excellent game. But that has morphed in many places to the full on tearing down of every Zelda game between the original and this new one. It is some baffling revisionist history, like there haven’t been at least three masterpieces in between. This is not true of everybody, many are careful to point out that while A Link to the Past didn’t have the original’s freedom it was still an excellent game, but most of the games are getting written off as misguided crap.

I never thought I would put myself into arguing against the original Legend of Zelda, but people vastly overstate the sense of ‘freedom’ in that game. It may have been one of my original gaming loves, but that game is a lot of opaque crap that has been wisely discarded. Getting past the Lost Hills or the Lost Woods is a cool trick once you know it, but it is understandably frustrating to anyone who doesn’t know how it works. Finding most of the secrets on the over world involves either already knowing where things are or painstakingly burning each bush or bombing likely walls. It isn’t fun; it is tedious. There is a lot to love about the game, but its relative openness is not the game’s biggest selling point.

Then there are the supposedly hyping comparisons to Skyrim, as though being a wide open janky piece of crap would be an improvement for the series. I know that I am the extreme outlier for my take on that game and Bethesda’s output in general, but what I’ve always liked more about Nintendo’s output over a lot of the open world crap that is dominating the current gaming landscape is that their games actually have well considered gameplay. I would rather Skyward Sword’s tightly designed, dense overworld to the wide open nothing that I see all over the place. From what I’ve seen of Breath of the Wild it appears to avoid the traps that nearly every other open world games fall into. Like Metal Gear Solid V, Breath of the Wild appears to still be a tightly designed game that is also an open world. As long as it still plays like Zelda, everything else is just gravy.

What annoys me is the hype that depends on putting something else down to make whatever is being hyped look good. You don’t have to tell me that the Wheel of Time is crap to try to convince me that A Song of Ice and Fire is good. Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword don’t have to be misbegotten junk to make Breath of the Wild a fresh experience. It can sell on its own merits; the other games in the series don’t need to be buried to build it up. Again, I am excited for Breath of the Wild as have been for a game in a long time, but that excitement has nothing to do with Skyward Sword, other than the fact that this game seems to be using a similar art design.