Moana Review

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The release of Moana continues Disney’s strong string of animated features. I would go as far to say that it is the best “Princess” movie they have put out since Beauty and the Beast – which you will remember I called the best of Disney’s animated films – though the only real competition it has in that timeframe is Frozen. Of course, I would also argue that Moana has more in common with Aladdin than with Tangled or The Little Mermaid. Moana isn’t perfect but it’s collection of songs and set pieces, as well as its beautiful animation, make for an excellent experience.

Young Moana is the heir to chief on her small island, but she yearns to sail the seas, something her people do not do. When the crops and fishing hauls start to fail on her island, she embarks on a quest to find the demigod Maui who long ago stole the heart of Te Fiti, which is the source their problems, and force him to return the heart. While the plot isn’t remotely complex, it does its job well. Moana’s struggle is understandable, as is Maui’s. The bulk of the movie is taken up with catchy, engaging musical numbers and gorgeously animated action scenes and sometimes a combination of the two. I don’t know that there is a song in this movie that will take off like “Let it Go”, but the songs of a higher average quality than Frozen’s.

For as much of the film that takes place on the open ocean, Moana can feel a little suffocating. There are only two characters for the bulk of the movie: Moana and Maui. There is no villain or any secondary characters after the opening. All they have to play off of is the braindead chicken Heihei, a character I found insufferable but did delight the target audience. For most of the second and third act it is all Maui and Moana. They are great characters; don’t get me wrong, with a sort of Aladdin and Genie dynamic going on. Moana is one of the most dynamic protagonists in a Disney movie. The weight of the story falls almost entirely on her. She gets some advice from her grandmother and some sailing training from Maui, but she is the driver of the plot. Things don’t happen to Moana, Moana makes things happen. Maui is an over the top hero character who revels in his powers and fame, like a combination of Hercules and the Genie. His bravado is shown, though, to be there to mask his lack of self-worth.

As entertaining of characters as they may be, something does feel lacking with just two characters of note. Some of that comes from the film’s episodic nature. The islanders are there in the beginning, but disappear once Moana sets sail. Her and Maui tangle with a giant crab, but he’s only on screen long enough to sing a song. There are a few other misadventures, but the only consistent parts are that heroic duo. It sometimes felt like it needed a third angle, someone else. Specifically someone for Maui to interact with, since he only ever talks to Moana.

Moana is excellent, even my complaints about it seeming limited are more nitpicking than any real flaw. It feels like a traditional Disney musical, which is to be expected with Clements and Musker behind it. It looks great, with beautiful islands and appealingly designed characters. While it doesn’t do everything, everything it does it does well.

****

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review

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I was a fairly big Harry Potter fan years ago, though I haven’t touched the books since I first read Deathly Hallows and I haven’t seen any of the movies since the last, other than catching a bit here and there on ABC Family, ahem, Freeform. Still, I am generally a fan of the series. I wasn’t especially excited for the return to cinematic version of Rowling’s Wizarding World; at least I wasn’t until I learned that Rowling was writing the screenplays and that it would be set in the Roaring 20’s. Fantastic Beasts turned out of be one of the most satisfying forays into this magical world.

For all that Fantastic Beasts deals with a lot of still extant social issues, it works very well as a delightful distraction. The movie follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) a British wizard visiting New York for the first time. He manages to get his suitcase, which holds an entire magical menagerie, switched with that of the non-magical baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). At the same time he gets embroiled with Porpentina Goldstein, an ex-auror – think magical cop – who is on thin ice with the American wizarding government after an incident involving a group of New Salemers who are trying to rid the USA of magical folks, for illegally bringing many of the animals in his case into the country. There is also apparently a magical beast running loose in New York City causing havoc everywhere it goes. Newt and Jacob search out Newt’s missing beasts, while tensions in the city grow higher and higher. Things eventually build to a head and a big confrontation, as things do. The big conflicts are much less interesting than the Magical Beasts themselves, with the improbable and impossible physiology. Having Jacob doused with the pheromones of some kind of glowing amphibious rhinoceros so he is chased around Central Park while Newt tries to coax the beast back into his suitcase is wonderful.

What Fantastic Beasts does best is create characters, something Rowling was great at in the books. Newt is the right kind of awkward, nervous and furtive around other people while being uniquely competent when dealing with the various animals that show up. Jacob adapts well and believably to being suddenly pulled into this magical world, with awe and fear and curiosity, with skills that have nothing to do with the task at hand, but not just some dolt pulled along for the ride. The too earnest Tina and her delightfully flighty sister Queenie are likewise well fleshed out characters. The villains are not as well shaded, but there does seem to be some life behind them.

For all that the bulk of the runtime is a delightful romp; it has quite the downer of an ending. The immediate conflict has ended, but none of the problems shown in the film have been solved. The biggest being the tense relations between the magic and non-magic communities. That conflict is what leads to the most emotional part of the ending, when something that has been inevitable from the beginning finally happens. Still, with the handful of codas it does manage to pull out some semblance of happy feelings.

After a summer that can best be described as a disappointment, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them continues a strong fall. I don’t know how well it will stick with me, but its combination of wonder and its terrific setting make it one of the more enjoyable tentpole movies of the year. It isn’t perfect, it is rather messy in spots, but it brings a certain ineffable sense of wonder to the screen that is always enjoyable.

****

25 Years 25 Games 19: Wild Guns

I’m not finishing this series this year, that is becoming increasingly obvious, but that is not going to stop me from trying. So on with Wild Guns, a simple and delightful game from Natsume. Wild Guns is a shooting gallery game. Your character stands at the front of the screen and shoots enemies in the background. That is just about all there is to it. Still, Wild Guns remains a delight, as much due to its simplicity as despite it.

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The game gives the player two characters to choose from, Annie or Clint, obviously named for Annie Oakley and Clint Eastwood. The story is that Annie hires space cowboy Clint to help her get revenge on the bad guy (who I am sure has a name but I can’t find it for the life of me) for the death of her family. The characters look initially like they came straight out of a western, but the world is full of robots and other science fiction stuff. The setting is one of the game’s greatest strengths. The Western and Sci-Fi themes mesh surprisingly well. The big, colorful graphics that flesh out this old west filled with killer robots is the stuff that all 16-bit games aspire to.

While the game is exceedingly difficult, it is rather simple to control. The d-pad controls both the character and the shooting reticule. The character moves around the foreground, shooting at targets in the background. You start with a pea shooter, but that can be upgraded to a shotgun or machine gun, as well as a few others. There is also a secondary weapon of a lasso that momentarily stuns the enemies you with it. You also have a screen clearing bomb and a melee attack for the handful of enemies that come into the foreground. At times bad guys will also toss dynamite at the player which can be tossed back at the bad guys. There is quite a bit the player can do for being stuck on a flat plane, but it all comes intuitively. Which is good, considering how ridiculously hard this game is.

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I played this game on the WiiU VC, with its rudimentary save state. Even with that considerable crutch, I found the game nearly impossible to complete. On easy difficulty. While the game is only about an hour or so long, it is not a game designed to be beaten in just an hour. Wild Guns requires the player to learn the game. There are a lot of enemies and a lot of bullets coming at the player. Knowing where to move and where to shoot is vitally important. I guess it is technically possible to react fast enough to clear many of the games hurdles, that is essentially what I did with my save state aides to get me through when my reflexes failed me, but this is a game that requires some learning if not explicit memorization. But that learning is how you play this sort of game, it is no different from Star Fox or Contra 3.

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Wild Guns is the definition of cult classic. It isn’t a great game, not is it a game designed to pull in a large number of devoted followers. It does what it does exceptionally well, but this kind of shooting gallery game is always going to be something of a niche interest.

Arrival Review

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Arrival is the next in the recent spat of thoughtful, adult sci-fi, following in the footsteps of films like Gravity, The Martian, and Interstellar. While it isn’t the crowd pleaser that The Martian was nor does it go as big as Interstellar, Arrival is maybe the most successful of those movies. It is genuinely thoughtful and intelligent, though it can’t quite stick the landing with the same confidence that pulls the viewer through the rest of the movie, a problem it shares with the other movies mentioned.

The movie stars Amy Adams as a linguist who is recruited by the military to help them deal with mysterious alien “shells” that have appeared in the sky in a dozen places around the world. She is teamed with Jeremy Renner, playing a physicist, as they try to translate from a completely alien form of communication. It mostly becomes a slow procedural, as Louise breaks down language to its smallest components to try to have a way of speaking with the aliens, dubbed hectapods. Meanwhile, all around the world people’s trigger fingers get itchy the longer things go without learning the alien’s purpose on earth

Arrival is a movie about communication. That guides the central plot, with Adam’s Louise and Renner’s Ian trying to talk with the alien hectapods that have shown up on earth as it likewise runs through all of the side plots with the world’s reaction to the mysterious aliens in our midst. Communicating can be difficult, with people who speak the same language, let alone a different one or beings that treat language as something different altogether. At first many of the effected countries work together, but as things get more tense and possibly more dangerous, the start to cut themselves off. It is the worst thing that can happen Arrival posits, since open communication is the only way to solve problems. It is telling that the plots central conflict is solved with a phone call. It is also telling that the most heinous act committed is spurred by brain dead political commentators. It is also telling that in the slowly unfolding story of Louise and her child that what drove her and her husband apart was also communication based. Louise chooses to not share information and when it finally came to light it drove them apart.

Enjoyment of this film all comes down to how the viewer takes the twist in the back third.  The movie expertly lays the groundwork for its twist, so it is at the same time surprising and completely logical.  Still, it is a massive change to how things proceed. Louise’s expertise with language eventually leads to her deciphering their circular method of writing, which ties back into the movie’s other theme of time. It opens with narration that humanity is too focused on sequence and by the end it escapes that trap.

Usually a movie with this sort of cerebral is also somewhat cold, but Arrival is a thoughtful, intelligent film that is also really emotional.  Unlike last year’s Interstellar, which tried for the same thing, Arrival makes each part feel like it was earned.  It helps that it is not swinging quite so hard as that movie, being both smaller and more personal.
Arrival isn’t perfect; it can be slow and plodding and the final twist is a tough pill to swallow, but it is smarter and more entertaining than just about anything else I’ve seen this year. Amy Adams is as outstanding as usual, and the rest of the cast is solid.

****1/2

Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice

The sixth Ace Attorney game hit the 3DS a couple of months ago and once Dragon Quest VII was finished I jumped right into it.  I greatly enjoyed the previous game, Dual Destinies, but while it was a joy to just have the series back after a few years, it didn’t quite capture the magic of the original trilogy.  With Spirit of Justice, the series has finally returned to its original heights.

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There are still some problems for the series to work through.  For one, there are too many characters that are important enough that that all feel like they need to be given their due.   There is Phoenix, Apollo and Athena, the three attorneys that work at Wright Agency.  And then there is Trucy Wright and investigator Emma Skye. There must also be appearances by previous prosecutors like Miles Edgeworth and Simon Blackquill.  Then the game also returns Maya Fey, with a cameo for her cousin Pearl.  I’ve enjoyed this whole series and am more than happy to see each of these familiar faces, but the sheer number of returning characters makes it hard to find room for new ones.

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That weakness plays into Spirit of Justice’s greatest strength.  This game is the most focused game in the series.  All of the cases, save one, are laser focused on the game’s central story.  Most of the time there are one or two that play it out, with the player gaining greater understanding of the characters in the more disconnected chapters.  In this one, 4 of the 6 cases tried feature one of the protagonists in a compromised position and one of the other two is the first chapter that introduces the country of Khura’in.  Each of the other four are all building to the central storyline of Khura’in.

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IT makes that central story possibly the strongest in the series, with the possible exception of Trials and Tribulations.  The situation in the foreign country gradually becomes clear to the player, as does the connections some major characters share with it.  It gradually builds and deepens as it is goes along, letting the player really get to know the story.  Spirit of Justice does have one of the smallest casts in the series.  The same faces show up over and over.  It lets those characters get more development, but it also limits the world a little bit.  I like it with this game, but if there is a sequel, fingers crossed, I hope it widens the scope a little bit again.

One thing I love this game for is bringing Maya back.  I didn’t realize just how much I missed the interplay between her and Phoenix until they were together again in this game, however briefly it was.  I like Apollo, Athena and Trucy, but these games have always been at their best when it’s been Phoenix and Maya doing the work.  I’ll play these games forever for just the scraps of those two.  While even on her return Maya spends a lot of the game kidnapped or accused of murder, but just bringing her back at all after two games with her absent was enough for me.

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Ace Attorney Spirit of Justice is just more of the same for the series.  That is more than enough for me.  The more the gaming landscape changes, leaving less and less coming out that I am truly interested in, the more I have grown to savor familiar comforts like Ace Attorney.  This is a series that got it right the first time out, there really isn’t anywhere for it to grow.  Each game lives or dies on the writing; on the plots and characters.  In that area, Spirit of Justice excels.

What I Read October 2016

I finished four books in October, my goal number. One of them was a book that I had been working on for months, but never really seemed to make much progress. I am not having my best year reading, but I think I am still going to finish up above 50 books read, which is my usual goal.

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The Good, The Bad and Me in my Anecdotage

Eli Wallach

Eli Wallach is a great actor and a good storyteller, but in this autobiography he seems to be too nice a guy to have any truly eye catching stories. That is not to say that there isn’t a lot of worth here, because this book is a lot of fun. But every time it brushes up against someone or something controversial, Wallach only has nice things to say. He seems like a genuinely nice guy, with a lot of passion for his profession, but his anecdotes would have been a more interesting if they were a little more salacious. He has stories about Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen and many others, but the worst anyone comes off is mischievous or troubled.

That is a really unfair way to put things. I know that. Wallack packs this relatively short volume with a lot of detail and a lot of stories, from his earliest memories to his experiences in the war to his struggles starting a family while also starting an acting career. It really made me wish I could have seen him on the stage, because that seems to be where his heart lied. He shows a lot of passion for the art of acting and while he has plenty of good stories about many of his classic films, he seems to remember working on the theater more fondly.

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Citadel

Kate Mosse

I read the previous book in this loose trilogy, Sepulcre, though I can’t remember a single detail about it. Other than the setting, I guess. This book is set in the same region of France, that is what binds the books together, but it takes place mostly during WW2. The protagonist is Sandrine, a young girl who is trying to eke out a living in occupied France, and the book follows her experiences throughout the war. It starts with her as a naïve girl who is inadvertently connected to something bigger. As it goes along, she takes a more active role in the French Resistance and in the seach for the Codex, a manuscript hidden in the area by a monk from the dark ages that is said to be very powerful.

While quite enjoyable once it gets up to speed, its pacing can generously be described as leisurely. It is a long book, nearly 700 pages, and it takes forever to get moving. Usually, I am not one to complain about that, but there isn’t enough book once things are moving to make up for the long set up. It does set up something that should be a lot of fun, an all-female group of resistance fighters. Only the last third of so of the book actually deals with them, the first parts of the book showing how they got involved. Really, it is a long time before what the Codex is, and why they are after it even becomes clear. But those last 200 pages or so, when to book all but becomes Indiana Jones are a lot of fun, though beware the sucker punch of an ending.

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Deryni Rising

Katherine Kurtz

I read another book in this series, a later book that was the first of a trilogy – I had somehow ended up with three separate trilogy starting Deryni books – and I feel much the same way about this book as I did that earlier one. This isn’t bad, though the prose can be dry, but there isn’t much here to draw the reader back. This one tells the story of how young Kelson became King. That is entirely it. His father is killed, and he must navigate the court along with his father’s closest advisor and Deryni, which is basically a person with magically inclined blood, Morgan. His mother, who hates the Deryni, opposes Morgan’s being there and trumps up treason charges against him. He and Kelson must avoid that while getting Kelson ready for everything that might happen at his coronation. It is moderately entertaining, truly medieval fantasy. Not a lot happens, there are a lot of plots already in motion when the book starts and it doesn’t go out of its way to fill the reader in on any details of how things were set up, only the effects. Still, I liked it enough that I would read the rest of the series if I stumble upon in.

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Power Up

Chris Kohler

I like Kohler. I liked his appearances on Retronauts over the years. I’ve liked reading his stuff at Wired. I didn’t, however, greatly enjoy this book. It is uneven; some chapters are excellent, others don’t really seem to have a reason to be in the book. Some of it is out of date, which is the unfortunate effect of a decade going by since this was originally published, but there are chapters that only vaguely connect with the rest of the book. Still, the goods parts outweigh the bad and even the bad chapters aren’t especially bad. The strongest parts are the earliest chapters, where Kohler outlines the growth of video games as a storytelling medium, growing from narrative free games like Pong, to relatively more sophisticated things like Donkey Kong to full stories like in Legend of Zelda. He presents a clear thread of growth. Also detailed are the rise of JRPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy and the beginnings of the music game genre. It is all good informative stuff. The chapter on Akihabara is much less compelling, even ignoring the fact, as noted in the book, that it is no longer exactly true. Still, the book is certainly worth a read for fans of video game history.

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Godland Celestial Edition Volume 2

Joe Casey & Tom Scioli

I really bounced off this series hard. I love Scioli’s art, and I like premise quite a bit, but the writing, especially the dialogue, is really off putting. These characters defy any sort of connection or even amusement. They are unpleasant and uninteresting. This volume covers a lot of ground, with a lot of villains and one of the protagonists sisters disappearing in space and I guess it is all building to something, but the further in I got the less I cared. A lot of ideas are thrown onto the page, but the ratio of good to bad is truly unfortunate. I get that it is trying to ape the constant energy of Jack Kirby, but it doesn’t have the cohesion of his work. It ends up being a pale imitation; it feels cynical in a way that Kirby’s stuff never does. I doubt I will be getting Volume 3. Instead I’ll just ready Scioli’s excellent American Barbarian again.

Hacksaw Ridge Review

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Based on the true story of Medal of Honor winner Desmond Doss, Hacksaw Ridge is a lot of things, many of them contradictory. It is compelling, gory, uplifting and hokey. It celebrates a famous pacifist with lovingly detailed violence. In the end, it is highly flawed but always entertaining. Whatever else may be true of Mel Gibson, he knows how to make a film.

Desmond Doss, played by former Spider-Man Andrew Garfield, comes from rural Virginia. His father is an alcoholic, his life shattered after his service in WWI. A couple of incidents in young Desmond’s life, in one of which he nearly kills brother during a fight, cement his religious belief to never use, or even hold, a firearm. He is an avowed pacifist. After a quick, and awkward romance with a pretty nurse, he feels compelled to join up when WWII starts. His problems start in basic training, when his refusal to carry a weapon and serve as a medic is challenged. That is the essential part of the story, how can a pacifist serve during his country during war? For Doss this means as medic on the battlefield, attempting to save lives as others are taking them. His fellow recruits and superiors feel he would be a liability. While it is easy to see the military’s point, or at the point of those immediately around Doss, it is impossible to not admire his perseverance and conviction. They try everything to drum him out, up to an attempted court martial, only for him to refuse and stick around, determined to do his part.

That is the first half of the movie, and while it does tend toward some hokeyness, it is a solidly entertaining story. That hokeyness comes from Garfields over the top hick accent and his fellow recruits. His meeting the recruits almost feels like a scene out of Forrest Gump, with their array of similarly strong accents and immediately evident personalities. Vince Vaugh plays the drill sergeant and he is clearly having fun. Still, it is enjoyable. Then they go to war.

The movie does some early prep for the carnage that unfolds during the fighting. Early on Doss saves a man from a car accident that leaves a blood spurting gash in an artery. Nothing, though, can prepare the viewer for the amount of blood and guts strewn across the scene in the battle that takes up that back half of the movie. If it were accompanied by a restrained take on the violence, showing Doss the sane man in a world of madness, it could have been very effective. But Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t show restrained, somber, terrible violence; it shows heroic, exploitative, action movie violence. It is a bad mix. This is a movie celebrating a pacifist, but it spends a lot of time glorifying violence. No chance for extra violence or gore is left on the table. The movie loving shows rats feasting of the corpses of those killed in the battle. It even adds some seppuku and a beheading just because it can.

All that only obscures the simple beauty of the central story. After a bad day of fighting with the Americans forced to retreat, Doss stays behind to rescue as many of his wounded comrades as he can. It is a magnificently heroic thing, worth all the buildup it gets. It being surrounded by that violence would really help cement the sheer heroism of his actions if the movie didn’t go out of its way to show everyone else as heroes too. I am not objecting to the idea of their heroism, they were all undoubtedly brave and valorous men, but this isn’t their story. A lot of what is shown seems to only be there for sake of having more blood and guts.

Even as I write this review I’ve been waffling about how much I like this movie. There are times I am sure it is a genuine classic and others where I think it is a piece of crap. It is certainly an uneven. It is an amazing true story, told in a way that mostly does it justice.

***1/2

What I Watched in October, 2016

Movies

The Prisoner of Zenda – This is one of the classic adventure tales. It is really old, from the 30’s I believe, but it is still a lot of fun to watch. It feels its age, but it is also very apparent why it was popular in the first place. ****

They Came Together – A charming spoof by the guys behind Wet Hot American Summer, starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler. It plays out with all the beats of a romantic comedy, but with a layer of complete ridiculousness. Very funny. ****

Looney Tunes Back In Action – Joe Dante is great and this is the movie that Space Jam should have been. Too bad Space Jam had already shit in the pool by this point. It has some great slapstick action and Brendan Fraser is a lot of fun. ****

Sweeney Todd – This is the perfect musical for Tim Burton’s talents, but that doesn’t make this movie any more enjoyable to watch. The production design is excellent, but I couldn’t make out the lyrics for most of the songs. ***

Jaws – Amazing exercise in tension and pacing. Just a great movie overall. Jaws doesn’t need any defending. *****

Spotlight – This is an altogether excellent movie. There are strong performances and riveting subject matter. I don’t really have more to say. *****

Sum of All Fears – Ben Affleck plays Jack Ryan in a movie that is mostly pretty dull until it goes balls out crazy and drops a nuke in Baltimore. It isn’t especially good, but it is nuts. ***

Redemption – This movie has aspirations of being more than just a Statham action movie, but it really isn’t much of anything. Statham is always fun to watch and it really isn’t like anything else, but neither is it particularly good. **1/2

Mascots – see review here. ****

The Nice Guys – Of all the movies to come out this year, this is the one I most wanted to see in the theater but missed out on. After taking advantage of a 99 cent rental deal with Amazon, I finally got to see it and am even more upset that I missed it. This is easily one of the best movies of the year. Both Crowe and Gosling are fantastic. Really everything aobut this movie is great. Perfection. *****

Tucker & Dale Versus Evil – A largely amusing horror comedy that leans too hard on the gore. There are some good bits and jokes, but it never really rises about amusing distraction into something really memorable. ***1/2

The Accountant – see review here. ***1/2

Jack Reacher – A perfectly competent action movie starring Tom Cruise. It is baseline action movie, nothing too spectacular but completely watchable. ***

Amanda Knox – It is amazing to watch this, to see the filmmakers get a lot of the major players to appear on camera and two of them just damn themselves with what they saw. I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered someone as scummy as Nick Pisa, or at least as he comes across here. It also gets across how flimsy the case against her was. This isn’t the most informative of documentaries, it assumes the viewer has a basic understanding of the case already, but it is riveting. ****

Godzilla 2014 – I liked this movie a lot more in the theater. I still like it now, but without the big screen spectacle the flaws stand out more. There really isn’t enough Godzilla action and some of the stuff with Ford doesn’t work at all. Still, that climax redeems it for the most part. ***1/2

Dazed and Confused – I have liked a lot of other Linklater movies, and when this one showed up on Netflix I jumped at the chance to finally see it. It is one of those perfect coming of age comedies. Most of the characters are at least partly sympathetic and it manages to capture the feeling of being in high school. ****1/2

Addams Family – This is one of the great horror comedies. The cast is great: Raul Julia and Christopher Lloyd especially. I don’t know that I like the actual plot, but all of the jokes and scenes play. ****

Addams Family Values – A much better plot than the first movie, with a lot of good stuff for this game great cast. I love camp stuff, seeing Wednesday and Puggsley being forced to interact with something like the real world. It is just so much damn fun. *****

Young Frankenstein – An all-time classic. It is not my favorite movie by either gene Wilder or Mel Brooks, but any collaboration of theirs is worth seeing. While I don’t love horror movies, I do like horror comedies and this might be the best. *****

Sisters – Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are a great comic duo, but this movie doesn’t quite stick the landing. All the elements are there and there are some genuinely funny jokes, but there is also a lot of flab. It doesn’t nail the character stuff or the comedy hard enough, though all of it is roughly good. Still, Fey and Poehler are too good to not at least like. ***1/2

The Cabin in the Woods – A pretty great meta take on slasher movies. I don’t much care for any horror movies, but this seems like it was doing something really smart with the genre.

Shaun of the Dead – Still excellent. It is layered and well considered and very funny. I like the other Cornetto movies a little better, but this one is still great. *****

TV

Poirot Series 13 – I finally worked my way through the last series. It is the same as it ever was; largely very well executed mystery movies built around a great performance with its lead. Still, it always manages to feel a little cold. It is never the less completely enjoyable. I am glad I soldiered through.

Detectorists Series 2 – The more I watch this show, the more I love it. It nails this perfect pastoral feel, with its characters gradually revealing themselves, never rushing to state its points. The characters are perfectly human; their struggles are wholly relatable. It is just everything I want in a show.

The Ranch S1 Part 2 – More of the same from the first part; a comfortingly terrible sitcom. Terrible is too strong, it isn’t good but it is well executed and the cast has some chemistry. There just isn’t a lot here to recommend unless you are a big fan of the stars.

Luke Cage – I’ve already written about this here.

The Get Down – I don’t really know how to evaluate this beautiful mess. There are some great scenes, but the show is just all over the place. Again, some of the musical numbers really work, but a lot of the dialogue is insultingly on the nose. I liked it on the whole, but it isn’t really all that good.

Quick Draw Season 1 – This show has essentially one joke, that the over-educated Harvard graduate sheriff doesn’t get the old west, but it manages to wring quite a few fun bits out of it, especially since they actually let him be an expert shot. Still, I watched the first season during a slow afternoon and likely will never come back to it.

Flash S3 – It hasn’t rebounded to the soaring heights of the first season, but while it has been a little slow so far, it does feel like they are actually building to something worthwhile. Unlike last season when the first third of the season was mostly set up for Legends. I’m really enjoying all the different Wells and Draco Malfoy as Barry’s work rival. I hope it pays off on all the promising stories it is setting up.

Arrow S5 – I think this season is shaping up to be stronger than last, but no less weird. They’ve brought in Ragman, Mr. Terrific and Wild Dog. Freaking Wild Dog. Still, it is staying closer to the street level stuff that Arrow works better with. I don’t know that I’ll keep up with it past the crossover, though.

Legends of Tomorrow S2 – The show is slightly stronger through three episodes than it ever was last season. Maybe that is just my innate love of the JSA showing through. It is still too ambitious for its effects budget, but Vixen is better than Hawkgirl. Of course, Commander Steel is no match for Captain Cold. Still, they are being set up to fight a time traveling Injustice League, which is much better than last season’s tepid take on Vandal Savage.

Supergirl S2 – The show is going through some pretty big changes in its move to the CW, but it overall feels a lot more confident with what it wants to be. Superman in the first few episodes was great and most of the new additions are fun so far. This might end up being as good as Flash S1 at this rate.

Now Playing October 2016

Beaten

Skyblazer – read about it here.

Legend of the Mystical Ninja – read about it here.

Dragon Quest 7 – read about it here.

Ongoing

Ace Attorney Spirit of Justice –

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I liked Dual Destinies when it came out, but after having played through the first three games again it was apparent how lacking that game was in comparison. This one, at least through the first two and a half cases, seems razor focused and really gets what makes this series so enjoyable. I think they might have cracked how to handle having both Apollo and Phoenix available to lead cases. Ideally they would each get their own games, but as that is an impossibility putting them in separate locations working on somewhat connected cases is working so far. The game lives and dies by the writing, and in the first two cases it has been very good.

SMT 4: Apocalypse – I’ve barely gotten started, but this is certainly more Shin Megami Tensei 4. I really liked the original game, and this one seems to have fixed some of the game’s minor problems and exacerbated others. Still, SMT games come around infrequently enough that I am more than happy with what I’ve played, though that is only the first couple of hours or so.

Secret of Evermore – Slow progress here, but I am enjoying the game. It is an odd one, feeling like Secret of Mana in some ways, but also very clearly an American game in others. It definitely doesn’t deserve the hate it gets from those who wanted Seiken Densetsu 3, but I don’t know that it deserves the praise I’ve seen elsewhere.

Robotrek – I’ve played through the opening here and this game is something special, even if it isn’t especially great. So far it isn’t great, merely pretty good, but it is doing a lot of interesting and original things.

Upcoming

Pokémon Moon – I am liking what I’m seeing from this game and I’m really looking forward to a somewhat remixed take on the usual formula. It will certainly still play like Pokémon, but I wonder what the campaign will be like without gyms. Nintendo and Game Freak really haven’t failed yet with this series.

Jotun – I paid for it, but I haven’t made time to play it yet. I really want to, but I’ve felt obliged to spend a lot of my gaming time playing SNES games, which is a certain way to make them feel like work instead of fun. If I start to feel that way, this is what I will break up that up with.

Wild Guns – I am not giving up on the 24 SNES games, even though it is looking less and less likely that I will manage to finish any time before March. If that is what it takes, that is what I’ll do. Until then, I’ll keeping playing the games, with Wild Arms next on the docket and one of the last non-RPGs that I have to play.

Lufia 2 – Next up after I finish one of those SNES RPGs I’m already playing. Hopefully this one goes better than the first Lufia game.

Dr. Strange Review

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Dr. Strange is a big leap forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of special effects. MCU movies’ special effects tend to be adequate, generally fine but occasionally a little cheap looking. That is not the case in Dr. Strange. While it makes no effort to differentiate itself from other superhero movies in terms of plot or characters, it does raise the bar with its trippy and impressive special effects.

On the surface there is a lot to like about Dr. Strange. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, a talented but arrogant neuro-surgeon. After a car accident destroys his use of his hands, he becomes obsessive about finding a way to repair the damage. That leads him to Kathmandu, where he is initiated into training in the mystical arts. It is essentially the same story that Marvel showed us in Iron Man. And in Thor. And in Ant-Man. Dr. Strange is the same as all the other Marvel heroes, and his story is the same. Like the rest of those movies, it plays out the same sort of origin story, hitting all the same beats in essentially the same order. Unlike Ant-Man or Iron Man, though, Dr. Strange’s attempts at humor generally fall flat. The best gag is with his cloak of levitation, which acts much like Aladdin’s flying carpet with a mind of its own, only the movie keeps going back to it with consistently diminishing returns.

There is a slew of potentially interesting secondary characters, all played by talented performers who are given absolutely nothing to do. The worst is Rachel McAdams as a completely empty love interest of sorts. Her character, Christine, has nothing to do but be the target of Strange’s “wit.” Tilda Swinton’s role as The Ancient One should have made the movie, but even she can’t make something from nothing this time. While she supposedly plays Strange’s teacher and mentor, the movie doesn’t give enough examples of her teaching to make any later revelations have any impact. The only character that actually feels like a character is Mordo, who acts as the Ancient One’s second in command and actually does more training with Strange than anyone else. Like the rest of the details of Kamar-Taj, what exactly is Mordo’s deal is never exactly clear, but it is clearer than anyone else’s.

While the characters and story are largely flat, the visuals make up for it. While the movie spends a lot of time using very normal portrayals of magic, glowing flaming lines and symbols that are as unnecessary as they are uninteresting, the way the movie shows the various characters warping reality is stunning. Dr. Strange takes the folding city bits from Inception and bumps them up to 11. During one of the big fight scenes they turn the entirety of New York City into essentially a 3D kaleidoscope. It is stunning, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a movie before. The special effects are consistently jaw-droppingly excellent.

Dr. Strange ends up being kind of a mixed bag. The story provides absolutely nothing new, not even on the level of Ant-Man’s turning the hero into a petty crook. This is the same super hero origin movie we’ve seen a dozen times before. It is not a badly done rendition of the story, but it feels really tired. However, the special effects are enough to keep someone watching. It left me constantly wanting to like it more, even as I grew bored of its characters and plot. It has such a great cast and a hook that I am a sucker for, but it only brings a visual pop to the table.

***1/2