Unexpected Reflections

When I was first contemplating beginning this blog, I set myself what I soon realized was a fanciful goal: I was going to write 100 posts to have in the bag before I ever started posting anything. That way, I could make a schedule and keep to it. I could write and post things as I finished them and when I got to a post day – the plan then was the same as it is now with post going up M/W/F – with nothing ready to go I could just dig into my backlog of 100 posts and have something right there. I soon realized that doing so was an unrealistic goal. Right now I barely but up 100 blog posts in a year, so it would have essentially meant holding off from starting the blog for a full year, which would have essentially meant never starting it. So then I used it as a bit of a guide, picking something off the list to write about when other inspiration failed me. At some point, I filed away the list in a folder and forgot about it. Now I’ve stumbled across it, half a decade a later and it is a bit like finding a time capsule. This list contains the things that I thought I wanted to write about in 2010. Some I have written about, some I still want to and some I wonder why I ever had them on the list.

Mixed in with childhood movie favorites, like Willow, and some of my favorite games, like Skies of Arcadia and Chrono Cross, are some truly baffling decisions. I apparently felt I had a lot to say about Tim Story’s Fantastic Four movies, which I think I like more than most but they don’t really inspire any strong feelings or thoughts in me. I thought I had an angle to write something about Chuck, a show I stopped watching midway through its second season which had been a couple of years before I made this list. Maybe I was going to write about why I gave up on the show; if that was it I can’t write it now, since I don’ remember anything about that show. I also had quite a few sports things to write on the list, but I don’t really care about sports, especially college sports which made up the bulk of the items, much anymore. I do need to check and see if I ever poster any of the blog posts I wrote about being a Royals fan, from one right after the wild card game to one after they lost the World Series to finally one after they won it the next year.

Skies of Arcadia's wild blue yonder

Skies of Arcadia’s wild blue yonder

A big one is A Song of Ice and Fire. When I made the list I was still among those eagerly awaiting A Dance With Dragons and the show had yet to premiere. The combination of a reread of the series and many tiresome conversations with fans of the show, as well as quite a few fans of the books, soured me on the whole series. What I would have written A Song of Ice and Fire then is very different than what I would write about it now. Is writing about it even still worth pursuing? I have endeavored to make my blog a generally positive place. I’ve never gotten much satisfaction from tearing something down. If I don’t like something, I’ll say that, but I am much more likely to just not write about things I don’t like rather than go out of my way to get mad at it. Still, sometimes putting a contrasting viewpoint out there is cathartic. I don’t have much nice to say about ASoIaF. I am happy that it has its fans and don’t begrudge them their enjoyment of it, but that is not the kind of fantasy I like.

That is another thing this list has brought to mind. I wanted to write about the pop culture that I loved as a child, the interests and experiences that shaped my youth and my tastes to this day. Somehow, though, I’ve managed to turn this blog into largely something more current. I spend a lot more time writing about new games and new movies that I watched recently instead of more formative experiences. The items on my list that fit the criteria of being a childhood favorite are the ones I am more likely to write about.

W...W...Willow you idioooot!

W…W…Willow you idioooot!

Right now, I am thinking of making a concerted effort to write those 100 blog posts I originally planned. I probably won’t change much else about how I do things, but now and then I will throw in an item or two from that rather diverse list. Once I’ve written about all 100, I think that would be a good time to close up shop here. Who knows? I like writing; despite the utter indifference that my meanderings here seem to inspire in people, I get enough out of them to continue doing them. But I am feeling a whole lot less eager to keep this up at the moment. So next week maybe you’ll see me finally put into words my indifference to the charms of Game of Thrones or maybe I will finally finish that long gestating exploration of morality in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Or maybe I will wax nostalgic about watching Willow on repeat. I don’t know.

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The Great Wall Review

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The Great Wall is often impressive looking, usually exciting and always kind of dumb. The much of the plot doesn’t hold up to scrutiny and the character arcs are more haphazard lurching about than any real growth, but somehow the whole thing remains enjoyable anyway. A lot of that comes from the charisma of the two leads. There was much consternation about casting Matt Damon as the lead in this movie set in ancient China, but the finished product feels less about a white savior and more a somehow simultaneously heartfelt and cynical collaboration between East and West.

The Great Wall starts with a group of European mercenaries traveling East, hoping to find and steal the legendary explosive black powder. Chief among this group are William (Matt Damon), a highly skilled archer, and Tovar (Pedro Pascal). After a run in with some kind of green creature that kills their companions, they end up captured by The Nameless Order, an army that guards the Great Wall against the taotie, those green creatures that William and Tovar encountered. After witnessing a battle between the Nameless Order, including General Lin Mei, the two of them must decide if they want to help fight this inhuman menace or steal the black powder and hightail it back to Europe.

The CGI for the tao tei ranges from passable to just north of terrible, but in all other respects this movie looks amazing. The defenders of the wall wear color coded armor and fight in unison. The spectacle is often ridiculous, like the Crane Troop, who bungie jump from the wall to impale the charging monster with spears, but it always looks good. The acting is more hit or miss. It is one thing with the Chinese actors sounding stilted when speaking crazy dialogue in a second language, less understandable is Matt Damon’s inconsistent Irish (?) accent or Tovar’s over the top Spanish patois. The fighting itself is often a touch perfunctory, with a lot of crazy strategies shown before most the killing happens behind a fog

The movie occasionally reaches the heights it aspires to, when all sense falls away and the nonsense transports the viewer to this fantasy version of China. It happens when watching the workings of The Great Wall, as well as when the mount everyone on hot air balloons. It also works well when Damon lightens up a little, like when William and Tovar banter. There is an ideological through line, with the thoroughly selfish William, a soldier since childhood who has fought for and against everyone, learning to trust in something bigger than just himself.

There is a touch of that white savior narrative, but the movie wisely steps back from it several times. William does do incredible things, he is a skilled archer, but the bigger hero moments are mostly taken by the members of the Nameless Order. He did kill one of the tao tie by himself at the start of the movie, but it is soon discovered that he only managed to do so because he carried a magnet, which throws off the beasts hive mind. While William is integral to several battles, Lin Mei is the one who comes out looking like a hero.

That is kind of why I see this movie as being a genuine attempt to make a movie that crosses the East West divide. There is certainly some cynicism there, just look at Stephen Chow’s recent efforts. The Mermaid grossed over 500 million dollars in China, but couldn’t even get a real theatrical release in the USA. But if it had a big time American star to put on the poster, like Matt Damon, then I am sure we would have had the chance to see it. That cynicism aside, I believe that Legendary Pictures, as well as director Zhang Yimou and the cast, were genuinely trying to make a blockbuster that was as appealing to China as it was to America and vice versa. I think they mostly succeeded. This is not a movie about the white guy showing up to show the Chinese how it’s done, is more about a white guy showing up and learning how the Chinese do it. William ends up looking heroic, but no more than Lin Mei or strategist Wang.

The Great Wall is a flawed, frequently dumb movie that isn’t quite ready to have fun with its insanity. It is not a going to be remembered among the great fantasy films, but it is enjoyable enough for what it is.

***

Super Mario Replay: Super Mario Land 2

Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins is not especially good. This really hurts to admit; it was one of the few worthwhile Gameboy games I owned for the first few years that I owned that machine. Playing it now, it is hard to deny that it is only passable because most Gameboy platformers are simply crap. It does improve on a lot of things from its predecessor, but many of those improvements come with drawbacks that make it hard to definitively say that it is the better game.

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Super Mario Land 2 is certainly a better looking game than its predecessor. Mario looks more like the Mario from Super Mario World, which came out the year before, and each of the games six worlds is bursting with personality. It is also a bigger game than the first Gameboy outing, with 32 stages compared to the firsts 12. And all of those stages are platform stages, no weird shooter segments this time. There is more of that genuine Mario feel, with everything being on model, fire flowers instead of superball and no exploding koopas.

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It does suffer in how it plays, though. The bigger, better looking Mario takes up a lot more of the screen real estate, meaning that the player can see less of the level. It is a problem common to Gameboy platformers, leading to too many blind jumps and cheap hits. The game also feels a little floaty. The edges of enemies and platforms are not particularly clear, again leading to cheap hits. It might be the worst playing Mario game that Nintendo ever made.

The game did give the Mario series Wario, the perfect secondary antagonist for the series. It isn’t like Evil Mario is the most original idea ever, but Wario as he evolved after this game is great. He was good enough here that he promptly took over the Gameboy series from Mario. The next game was Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3. Though it is called Super Mario Land 3, I am considering it a Wario game and including it in my Super Mario Replay.

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Super Mario Land 2 is a game that means a whole lot to me. I played it so many times on cross country trips, as my family drove from western Missouri to Indiana every summer to visit relatives. I know the ins and outs of this game like no other game in the Mario series. Still, playing it now, with fresh eyes, it is hard not to notice its shortcomings. It is certainly an ambitious game, there are few Gameboy games that look better. But like most GB games of its ilk, it is a pale shadow of the home console games of the same time. It is trying its hardest to be portable Super Mario World, but that just isn’t possible on the Game Boy. I can’t say that it isn’t a worthwhile addition to the series, but it certainly isn’t the best.

LEGO Batman Review

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Anyone who saw The LEGO Movie surely remembers its delightfully egocentric take on that most famous superhero. LEGO Batman, as the title should make more than obvious, is more of the same that focuses primarily on him. It works and it moves fast enough that the few parts that don’t work go by so fast that it is easy to forget them.

LEGO Batman starts with a bang. All of Batman’s rogue gallery, from the Joker to Bane to Condiment King, team up to destroy Gotham City. They are defeated, of course, by Batman to a song he rapped himself. After that we get to see how Batman functions, or fails to function, as Bruce Wayne when Alfred forces him to attend Commissioner Gordon’s retirement party. It then proceeds to do some of the best renditions of classic Batman characters ever seen in a movie. Batman accidently agrees to adopt eager young orphan Dick Grayson and immediately falls in love with Gordon’s replacement: his daughter Barbara, only to be put off by her somewhat anti-Batman stance on crime fighting. Meanwhile, the Joker, fed up with working the other incompetents in Batman’s rogue gallery, devises a plan to prove to Batman that they are true nemeses.

I don’t think the movie does a great job with any of Batman’s villains other than Joker, whom Zack Gallifinakis plays as a woman scorned, jealous of Batman fighting around when he’s got the perfect villain right there. However, that is more than offset by how well it does with his supporting cast. Alfred is wonderful, as is the eternally upbeat Robin. While I am not a fan of making Batman and Batgirl a couple (It was a bad idea in the movie adaptation of Killing Joke, it is a bad idea here) the version of Barbara Gordon here is new and entertaining. I do wish the movie had spent a little more time with the superhero stuff; Batman’s villains get pushed aside rather quickly for the likes of Voldemort and the Eye of Sauron and the other superheroes only show up during a brief excursion to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. But that is me letting the comic fan in me ignore what actually makes a good and accessible movie.

While LEGO Batman doesn’t go to the lengths that The LEGO Movie did to mess with the idea of these Legos actually being toys, it does have its own meta-narrative, one that is more interesting than the somewhat rote joke delivery vehicle that is the plot of this movie. From the beginning, LEGO Batman is having a conversation with previous movie versions of Batman. There are references to how Superman is now his greatest enemy and call backs to the Burton movies. The one that most frequently gets singled out is Batman 66. At first that Adam West version of Batman is held up for ridicule, dismissed by Batman. But with the reluctant addition of Robin to his crime fighting, the 60’s Batman starts to become more and more relevant. It really works, though I don’t know that Batman ’66 really needs vindication, especially not in the eyes of anyone paying money to see LEGO Batman.

LEGO Batman is really good. It is a comedy that is suitable for children but isn’t insulting to adults, a tricky balance that only Pixar seems to nail every time out. It isn’t an especially deep movie, but it is a fun distraction that is sure to be a favorite of children and parents for years to come.

****

John Wick Chapter 2

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The first John Wick movie was a very well executed piece of pulp. It was a stripped down, lean revenge movie with excellent action sequences and some nice bits of humor. This follow up loses a lot of the humor, but comes back strong in every other regard, fleshing out the world that first movie only hinted at and doing its best to outdo that movies already terrific action. I don’t know that it quite succeeds in being better than the first movie, but if it’s not it is really close.

John Wick Chapter 2 picks up soon after the last movie left off. Once Wick (Keanu Reeves) has gotten revenge for the murder of his puppy, he sets out to retrieve the car that was stolen from him at the same time. Once that little detail is taken care of, he returns home with his new dog to resettle into retired life, only to find another link to his time as a hitman coming back in the form of Santino D’Antonio. Wick owes him a blood debt and since Santino has heard that Wick is out of retirement, he’s decided to cash in. After some convincing, Wick takes on the mission and the movie is off and going.

The movie does a lot of more to flesh out the intricate underworld that the first movie hinted at with its Continental hotel that caters to assassins and everyone pays in gold. The rules that they all live by, most importantly that no business is to be done on Continental grounds, are fleshed out and made more clear. It does this not through rote or dull dialogue, but by having Wick take advantage of the services provided and oblique conversations that mention new concepts. It gives the viewer just enough to understand the plot and to give the feeling that there is more going on in this world than is immediately apparent. The best little Continental interlude is easily Wick’s visit to the sommelier, who instead of dispensing wines he helps match customers to the proper weapons. It is one of the few scenes that keep the first film’s sense of humor.

Where the film truly shines is its actions scenes. Few movies have actions scenes as well choreographed and realized as the John Wick movies. Much of the thanks goes to Keanu Reeves, who is able to do the extended takes that many of the action scenes here feature. Unlike many choppy action movies, John Wick’s fight scenes are frequently smooth takes that go on much longer than most and zoom out further to give the viewer a better view of scene rather than closer to hide how much of it isn’t really happening. It helps that whoever staged the action did simply an incredible job. The action is as good as it gets and that is why you are coming. It is worth mentioning, though, that the fights have incredibly graphic violence, so those with an aversion to blood or unspeakable things done with a pencil might want to think long and hard before watching this.

The film’s storytelling economy that reveals its world is also put to good use introducing characters, especially since the bulk of the characters from the last movie didn’t make it out alive. John Wick Chapter 2 introduces some rival assassins in Common’s Cassian and Ruby Rose’s Ares, both of which are given fairly full sketches with only small amounts of screen time. It also introduces Laurence Fishbourne as some sort of homeless king in a fun cameo, as well as maximizing the time to the returning Ian McShane and Lance Reddick.

The title character changes the most in this second film, or more accurately our perception of him changes the most. In the first he was a retired assassin out for revenge, now he is an assassin out of retirement. Before it was kind of fun, this time it is more sad. There is no escape for John Wick, and when there is an escape he seems incapable of taking it. It changes him from a driven, talented man out for revenge to a very sad man with a death wish. He could walk away, he should walk away but what does he have to walk away to? This movie systematically strips the few things he had after the last movie away from him, leaving him with nothing.

While it is something of a downer, it is still an excellent film. It is the Empire Strikes Back to the first John Wick’s Star Wars. With a third movie already announced on the way let’s hope there is a satisfying next chapter in this tale.

****1/2

What I Read in January 2017

I made my goal of five books this month, including one that I have been working on for more than four months. I complemented that with a half dozen or so comic collections, but I don’t really have anything to say about them. I am currently reading about four different books, including finally getting starting on my reading project for this year: reading all of Charles Dickens’ novels. I’ve already read quite a few of them, but it has been a long time for most and I might go back to them as a refresher. I am about a quarter of the way through Pickwick Papers. I didn’t read anything nearly so impressive in January, though.

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Girl in the Shadows

Gwenda Bond

I read the first book in Bond’s series about the circus, Girl on a Wire, and enjoyed it. Not as much as I enjoyed her Lois Lane books, but it seemed unlikely that I would with no prior affection for it. This sequel changes the focus from high wire acts to a stage magic and also increases the amount of real magic in the series. The first book had a magic coin that gave the person holding it luck; this creates a whole society of real magicians. The central story is along the same lines as the last book, with a young performer out to prove herself on the stage. Moira, the protagonist, runs away from her restrictive father to join a traveling circus as a stage magician. She soon learns that she can do more than just stage magic, as well as a host of family secrets. She is aided by a boy she meets at the circus and a romance is soon kindled. It works, though I found it less engaging than the first volume.

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The Demon’s Brood

Desmond Seward

I am very conflicted on this book. It is an enthralling read, but it is very selective about the history it portrays. While reading this overview of the Plantaganet Dynasty of England, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Seward was deliberately including the most shocking and graphic stories of the era, even those that as far as I know have largely been discredited by historians. It all becomes clear near the end, when the writer makes a plea that these older Kings to replace the Tudors for dramatic portrayals, possibly to get some of that sweet Game of Thrones money. He’s not wrong, but it does color what does and does make this already stretched thin book. Less appealing are the writer’s reflections on the quality of each king, weighted heavily in favor of their martial prowess over anything else.

While it can be sensational, The Demon’s Brood does give a good overview of a dozen or so Kings. Even those with a passing knowledge of English history, or Shakespeare in my case, will learn a lot from this book and it is a very easy read. It is certainly nowhere near a comprehensive look at any of these figures, and it all but leaves out some rather important people like Eleanor of Aquitaine, but it definitely worth a look.

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A Man of Some Repute

Elizabeth Edmondson

This is supposedly a mystery, but while Edmondson does a lot of work to set up her fairly enjoyable cast of characters, the mystery part frequently gets lost in the shuffle. The personal problems and post-WWII period details are all fine, the book absolutely doesn’t work as a mystery. I do like the characters, but the book slow plays just about everything about them. It sets up a lot of directions things could go for Hugo, Georgina and Freya, but doesn’t give them a lot to do.

Recently injured and forcibly retired from his intelligence work, Hugo moves to Selchester with his younger sister Georgina. There they meet Freya, the niece of the old Earl who went missing seven years before. Soon after they arrive, the Earl’s body is found on the premises of Selchester castle, kicking off a very relaxed investigation. I didn’t hate the book, I liked it enough to pretty much immediately read its sequel, but I wasn’t overly enthralled.

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A Question of Inheritance

Elizabeth Edmondson

This is the sequel to A Man of Some Repute. Again, this feels like a slow playing of everything. It does have a stronger mystery, but otherwise is pretty much the same as the previous book. Or what I assume is the previous book, because this one doesn’t exactly pick up where the last left off. This one starts with a new Earl of Selchester moving into the castle with his two daughters. Unfortunately, this unknown American taking the seat is not welcome news to everyone and someone appears to want him dead. When a guest turns up dead at the castle, Hugo and Freya set to work again sorting things out.

This one does feel more like a classic mystery, though that mystery plot still gets sidelined for way too long at certain points. It also delves more deeply into Hugo’s spy past, a turn that could be interesting, but this only barely starts to make it good. It is like a couple of chapters of a spy novel fit into this rather domestic book. I don’t think this series has been very good, but they are still largely pleasant reads.

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Republic of Thieves

Scott Lynch

I really enjoyed the first two of Lynch’s Locke Lamora books, but it took me a long time to warm up to this one. It doesn’t help that things don’t really get going until more than halfway through the book. It isn’t that the first half is unenjoyable, but it is very low stakes. A lot of it is focused on cleaning up loose ends from the previous book, which left this series’ anti-heroes in somewhat dire straits. After that, Locke and Jean are engaged in a political game between rival wizard factions to throw the results of a coming election. That is the real problem: the stakes feel very small compared to the two previous books. This one is largely a dive into the relationship between Locke and Sabetha, as she is leading the other party in this contest. That stuff works, but it doesn’t really feel like the protagonists have any direction or goals for most of the book. They take the job because that is literally the only choice and they have no skin in the game, as long as they play by the rules.

Lynch has created a great cast of characters. Characters like the Sanza twins, who only appear in the flashbacks but continue to get more and more fleshed out, making their lack in the present chapters strongly felt. Locke and Jean, and Sabetha for that matter, are all great. I am happy to just read more of their adventures, but I hope that going forward they have a little more at stake.

La La Land Review

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I had given up on seeing La La Land at a theater. While my local cinema had posters up for it for a while, they disappeared about two weeks ago. They pulled the same trick early in 2016 when they had coming soon posters up for The Nice Guys, which they never showed and consequently I never got to see on the big screen. But, miracle of miracles, it finally showed up last weekend. It is just as good as everyone says it is. La La Land is an inspiring romance

The movie stars Emma Stone as Mia, an aspiring actress working as a barista at the Warner Bros studio lot. She is cajoled into attending a party with her three roommates, which goes badly and her car gets towed. On her trek back home she wanders into the restaurant where Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is playing piano. Despite some initial friction, they soon hit it off, with Seb sharing his love of jazz and Mia her love of old Hollywood movies. Both of them, however, remain unable to fulfill their dreams. Mia keeps getting auditions for lackluster parts and Seb is unable to pull together the funds to open up his desired jazz club. So when an old friend offers Seb a chance to play keyboard for his band, Seb takes him up despite not really liking the music. Meanwhile, Mia writes and performs a one woman show.

The plot is enjoyable, with a lot to say about performance and creation that I need to see it again to really unravel, but it is a secondary draw to the music. La La Land is a musical; a very enjoyable one. The opening number, with dozens of dancers breaking out in an impromptu performance on during a traffic jam on the highway is a sight. Tons of performers doing impressive routines all in one take. Amazingly, as good as that first song is it only gets better from there. There is the completely delightful “A Lovely Night” with the movie’s two stars beginning an infinitely charming romance during a song that starts with them complaining about each other. After a couple of complete showstoppers, “City of Stars” and “Audition”, it winds up with “Epilogue” a bittersweet look at what might have been.

That is what makes La La Land so amazing. It is a love story, among other things, that while it doesn’t end quite where you might expect, it is still a mostly happy ending. It is certainly not a traditional ending. That is the movie. Both Seb and Mia are fans of things that have long passed. The Hollywood that Mia loves doesn’t really exist anymore and the jazz that Seb idolizes is a fading genre of music. Much like how this movie is a throwback to old-styled Hollywood musicals. La La Land argues that it is important to remember the past, but not to be constrained by it. It is perfectly fine to love old movies or traditional jazz, but you can’t let that hold you back from change. There are certainly elements of that old thing that can be brought forward, like the musical genre itself, but maybe all of its genre trappings don’t need to be preserved. Does a romance have to end a certain way to be happy?

La La Land is a cut above most movies I see and review here. I tend toward populist genre fair. Honestly, that is what La La Land is, except its genre is not one that has shown that popular appeal recently. I don’t see how something like La La Land wouldn’t be pleasing to the majority of movie goers. It is utterly charming and uplifting.

*****

Super Mario Replay: Super Mario Land

For a nearly 30 year old Gameboy game, Super Mario Land remains remarkably playable. It is a fine game made within the constraints of the time and situation of its creation. Judged solely on the merits of how fun it is to play in 2017, it is unfortunately lacking.

Super Mario Land is one of only two actually worthwhile Gameboy launch titles, along with Tetris. It hit shortly before Super Mario Bros 3 and played and looked mostly like the first Super Mario Bros. Much like the other game that looks and plays the most like Super Mario Bros, The Lost Levels, Super Mario Land is a distinct step back from that seminal game in just about every way.

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Being a step back in the graphics department is understandable; it is on less powerful hardware that comes with its own bad screen. Unfortunately, it is also a step back in the controls and length. Super Mario Land plays surprisingly sloppily. The edges of platforms are inconsistent, jumps are kind of twitchy and everything just feels a little off. It isn’t enough to really ruin the game, but it never feels quite right. It is still a good sight better than most GameBoy platform games, mostly because the stripped down graphics actually play to the systems strengths. It is easy to see where you are going, no blind jumps because the screen doesn’t cover enough real estate for you to see where you’re jumping.

The short length is probably the biggest problem with the game. SMB had 32 levels, SML has 12. And they are not particularly long or difficult levels. The game can be beaten start to finish in about 45 minutes. The game consists of four worlds of three stages each. Even with just 12 stages, 2 of them are not normal stages but scrolling shooter stages. Honestly, with the floaty controls and shooter levels, it is no surprise to learn that this game was not developed by Mario creator Miyamoto’s team but by the crew responsible for Metroid and Kid Icarus. It feels more like a Kid Icarus follow up than a Mario one.

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I would call out the world of Super Mario Land as being weird, but that is a moving goalpost with the Mario series, especially in the third entry America had seen, with each one being quite different than the last. Still, Mario 1 laid out the basics and Mario 2 added a ton of recurring enemies and characters as well as establishing character differences that have stuck since, very little of Mario Land has been follow up on. Princess Daisy is a mainstay of the various ancillary sports titles, but little else from this game’s Egypt and Ancient China episodes have been seen again. At this point, the setting feels very un-Mario-like. It doesn’t help that familiar elements are a little different as well. There is no fire flower in this game, instead of fire balls Mario tosses bouncing super balls. Instead of kicking turtle shells, they explode. They are traditional Mario elements that don’t work the same way they do in any other Mario game.

Super Mario Land is available on 3DS for less than $5 and that feels about right. It is still mostly enjoyable to play these days, but it is impossible to forget that this is a GameBoy game.

What I Watched in January 2017

Movies

Ant-Man – I’ve seen and reviewed this before, but my brother hadn’t seen it. It holds up to repeat viewings. Most of the jokes still land and the action stuff is good enough. I really can’t wait for that sequel. ****

John Wick – I’d heard good things about this and the trailer for the sequel looked great, so I rented it from Amazon for a dollar and gave it a watch. It is a barebones, nearly perfectly executed action movie. It does a great job of building up John Wick before letting you see him in action, and then making that pay off. It also does a good job of hinting at this elaborate underworld that it only barely shows, making this seem like it comes from a world that exists outside of this movie. It is just really well done all around. ****

Duck Soup – This is maybe the best comedy ever made and even now, more than 80 years after its release, it remains relevant. When Rufus T Firefly (Groucho Marx) sings “The Laws of My Administration” it is hard not to see its similarities to problems in the current day. *****

Horse Feathers – I don’t like this one quite as well as Duck Soup, but it is similarly hilarious and relevant, though the problem of colleges making sports more important than education is much lighter than resurgent fascism. *****

Boogie Nights – Paul Thomas Anderson is a master. There is a lot going on in this movie, including a star making performance from Mark Wahlberg, but I don’t really have time to unpack it. It has a completely awesome soundtrack as well. *****

The Last King – This is a Norwegian historical action movie about the real rescue and a child that would eventually be king. It is basically Game of Thrones but with more skiing. It isn’t great, but it more than enjoyable. ***1/2

Ratchet & Clank – I had high hopes for this, but it didn’t play near me. It ended up being like most video game movies; not especially good. It feels a little like a Ratchet and Clank game with all the gameplay taken out. It needs just a little more. It isn’t bad, but it never really rises higher than mildly amusing. Still, it isn’t pure excrement like Angry Birds. ***

Alice Through the Looking Glass – I expected this to be a lot worse, but while it isn’t good was it an abomination either. It is just a mess of CGI and affected performances that occasionally manages to be interesting. **1/2

Live By Night – review here. ***

Cloud Atlas – I skipped this when it came out because the Wachiowskis tend to be more miss than hit with my, but I listened to a great podcast about it (fthismovie) that convinced me to give it a shot, and I’m glad I did. Cloud Atlas interweaves 6 stories in different time periods that all tell one giant story. It is kind of clunky at times and melodramatic, but it is so earnest that the whole thing ends up working. I loved it. *****

Trainspotting – I see why this movie is so well regarded, but I found it really hard to watch. It coats a frank look a drug addiction and hopelessness with a pop aesthetic to make it moderately palatable. It deserves its reputation, but I doubt I’ll watch it again. ****1/2

Fruitvale Station – This is an amazing and harrowing look a specific example of a real and extant problem in the country. This movie follows that last day of Oscar Grant, who was shot by BART police officers on New Year’s Day nearly a decade ago. It is just heart breaking to watch. *****

Small Soldiers – This is not my favorite Joe Dante movie, but there is still a lot to like here. It is a little pseudo-horror movie for kids; it mostly works. It’s central toys fighting toys conflict is only marginally interesting, but there are quite a few nice performances, including one by the late, great Phil Hartman. It is no Gremlins or The ‘Burbs, but isn’t bad. ***1/2

Flowers of War – This wants to be something important and profound, but it ends up feeling a little cheap and awkward. There are some really good scenes and shots, and this is a story that needs to be told, but this is not the best telling. The Asian side of WWII is not one that gets told a lot, especially not about Japan’s atrocities in China rather than US military exploits in the Pacific, but this just feels like it kind of got away from director Zhang Yimou.**1/2

Gone Girl – I am coming to terms with the fact that I am just a Ben Affleck fan. I like watching movies he stars in and I like it when he shows up in bit roles (see the next entry). This is a messed up movie and I’m not sure I like what it has to say and I know I don’t like seeing Rosamund Pike hit herself in the face with a ballpeen hammer, but it is a well-made film. ****

Shakespeare in Love – This was a lot of fun. It didn’t blow me away or anything, but this is pretty much the movie that The Knight’s Tale wants to be. It is a romantic comedy that just happens to star Shakespeare as he writes Romeo and Juliet. It takes some liberties with historical accuracy, mostly because that is far from the point. It is a fun movie with a lot of fun performances. ****

Scoop – I tend to prefer Woody Allen’s straight comedies, like this one. It’s got Scarlett Johansson playing a flighty would be reporter, Hugh Jackman being charming, Ian McShane being irascible and Allen himself playing an ineffectual stage magician. It is only rarely laugh out loud funny, but the whole thing is just kind of pleasant to watch. ****

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage – read review here. **1/2

The Three Musketeers (2011) – This movie has so many things that I like, such as fencing and airships, that I really wanted to like it. But it just isn’t any good. It isn’t horrible, but the sword fights are mediocre and it is stuffed with bad effects. **1/2

Iceman – I love Donnie Yen. He’s stolen two blockbusters in the last couple of months (Rogue One and XXX) and I’ve been binging on his films available on Netflix, like the Ip Man movies. This one is a giant mess. It relies on mediocre CGI over Yen’s considerable martial arts talents. Yen is great, but this movie is not. *1/2

La La Land – Review coming soon. *****

Dragon – Another Donnie Yen vehicle. This one starts out great. Donnie Yen as a small town laborer who takes out a couple of bandits in a butcher shop. A police investigator determines that he must be a master martial artists and they engage in a cat and mouse game as he tries to prove it. But the ending is kind of nonsense, bringing the whole experience down. ***1/2

TV

Always Sunny in Philadelphia Season 11 – It is amazing to see that this show remains so good after more than a decade. I don’t know that Season 11 is my favorite season of the show, but it has its share of excellent episodes. All of the stars continue to do excellent work exploring the unique ways that all of these characters are really just completely awful.

Turn Season 2 – An improvement over the tepid first season, but it still struggles with an unlikeable protagonist and way too much emphasis on stupid stuff rather than on actually spying. It isn’t Jamie Bell’s fault, but the central character is just completely unlikeable. He seems neither skilled nor principled; simply leaping from one blunder to the next. Even its villains, like the frequently despicable Captain Simcoe, get more of chance to seem sympathetic than the shows protagonist. While Abe Woodhull is a black hole at the center of the show, his allies Ben Tallmadge and especially Caleb Brewster are a lot of fun, but they get too little time.

Tarzan & Jane – It takes way too long to get up to speed and never stops looking ugly, but Netflix’s teenage take on Edgar Rice Burroughs famous jungle man isn’t terrible. In fact, the back half of the season gets quite good. Its mixed race, highly active Jane is a highlight. I can’t help but wish this show came in a better looking package, because I think it is up to the level of some other well liked action cartoons, at least over its first dozen episodes, but its blocky 3D look is simply unappealing.

Sherlock Series 4 – There is a real sense of diminishing returns with this show. It has almost always been better when the stakes were smaller, but now it doesn’t seem to know how to lessen the stakes, or how to tell a compelling mystery. That is offset by just how much fun it is to watch Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. And Mark Gatiss, who has been equally good as Mycroft. There is still enjoyment to be had from this show, but two out of three of this series’ plots were duds.

Danger 5 Season 2 – I liked the first season of this show, but I found it best taken in small doses. Somehow they managed to amp up the craziness in season2, but while I found it easier to binge, it just wasn’t quite as satisfying. Some jokes were overused and while the switch from the 60’s to the 80’s was great, things ended up feeling kind of scattered. Still, there is nothing else like this.

The Man in the High Castle Season 1 – This show is not unlike Turn in that it has a great premise, but it doesn’t know how to build its characters. Does it want the viewer to root for the Nazi spy? That’s not a good direction to go. But it doesn’t succeed at making anyone else compelling. Their actions only vaguely make sense and any time they seem to be making progress they seem to spin off in a completely different direction. After 10 episodes I couldn’t tell you what any of the characters want. They have no goals; they merely exist in the nightmare alternate reality. Everything else is good enough that I am going to keep going, but this show better find some direction if it wants me to watch past season 2.

Voltron The Mighty Defender Season 2 – I thought the first season of this show was fine, but with all of the origin stuff from season 1 out of the way season 2 shines all the way through. It is the Voltron that exists in the memories of the show’s fans, a spell that would be broken by actually rewatching the original, a lesson I learned from going back to TMNT as an adult. It is just the sort of show I would have loved to be able to watch as a kid.

Taboo – This Tom Hardy vehicle as me enthralled, but it is all mysteries and no solutions so far. I’ll be back next month with my overall thoughts. Maybe it gets its own post.

Now Playing in January 2017

Beaten

River City Tokyo Rumble – read about it here.

Monster Hunter Generations – read about it here.

Secret of Evermore – read about it here.

Super Mario Bros – read about it here.

Super Mario Bros The Lost Levels – post coming soon.

Runbow nojan2

This game is an absolute delight. I didn’t manage to beat the Bowhemoth, but I did see the ending for the campaign. It is a series of bite sized challenge levels. Each level has its own little challenge, like scrolling backwards or rising lava, but every level has the gimmick of the background changing colors, which reveals or hides similarly colored platforms. It works perfectly. It can be really tough, but stages are tiny, rarely taking more than a minute to complete, and numerous so even if you get stuck there is also a different challenge you can face. It is also jam packed with charm. Aside from the characters made for this game and their numerous outfits, there are also more than a dozen stars of other indie darlings like Shovel Knight or Shantae to play as. Everyone plays the same, though I do think there are plenty of unique taunts, but it really lets the play customize their experience. It also features up to 9 player multiplayer. I’ve only had the chance to experience 2 player so far, but it is also a lot of fun. I can see myself returning to this game for a long time, to finish unbeaten stages and go for high scores. It is really just a wonderful experience.

Aeterno Blade – This is a kind of janky metroidvania game. I’d hesitate to just call it bad, but other than a pavlovian enjoyment of filling out the map there really wasn’t much here I liked. There are a lot of combos one can do with battle system, but in order to make them viable it turns a lot of the enemies into damage sponges. The game looks like a PS1 game, a style of low res polygonal graphics that I can’t imagine anyone was clamoring to see again. I bought it on a deep discount and didn’t hate it, but there are much better games in this style available no matter the system you buy it for.

Ongoing

Paper Mario Color Splash – I’ve barely had the time to start this, but I like it so far. The dialogue especially has been impressive. Even the supposedly disappointing Paper Mario Sticker Star was a joy in its story sequences, so there was no reason to expect this to be any difference, but I am happy to see that it is just as good as I expected. It remains to be seen if the gameplay is as good, but it is promising through the first hour or two.

Remember Me – The more I play this, the more it becomes clear that this is a better idea for a game than it is a finished product. It is close to a good game, or even a great game, in many ways, but by the time I end each play session it feels like a chore. Hopefully it comes together over the second half; though that is usually the opposite of how game experiences go.

Dragon Quest VIII –nojan1

I’ve barely started on this game, but so far it is just as good as I remember it. There is something about the job system Dragon Quests that never quite clicks for me. I enjoyed DQ 6, 7 and especially 9, but my favorites have not been the ones to use a job system, like 4, 5 and, assuming my recollection matches the other 50 or so hours of the game, 8. Dragon Quest 8 is the most simple and straightforward game in the series since at least DQ5, maybe even further back than that. It is just a handful of characters on a quest, with twists and turns that don’t change the central nature of the story. Still, it does what it does very well and those characters as a lot of fun.

Elliot Quest – This game is a whole lot bigger than it seems. I thought I was near the end, but it turns out I was closer to the midpoint than the finish line. This game does have some problems, like the occasionally unresponsive controls and some punishing death penalties, but it is mostly really enjoyable. So far I would call it Zelda 2 done right. It plays much the same way as that second tier NES classic, but even at its most punishing it is more forgiving and overall just feels fairer. It helps that the player’s primary weapon is ranged, emphasizing avoiding enemies rather than toe to toe combat. I expect to have this finished before too long and maybe have more to say about it.

Robotrek – Its going, its going.

Upcoming

Enslaved Journey to the West – I stared this game last year, but barely got started on it before I got distracted. I intend to go back and beat it as soon as I finish with Remember Me.

Inazuma Eleven – I’ve got about 4 or 5 unbeaten games I bought digitally on my 3DS, and my goal this year is to try to finish them. Both because I have enjoyed what I’ve played of most of them, I am halfway through this one, but also as an excuse to not spend money on new games. I really intend to cut down on how much I spend on games this year.

Terranigma, Lufia 2 – These, along with the already started Robotrek, are the last of the SNES games I meant to beat last year. I will keep plugging away at them and hopefully finish sooner rather than later.

Super Mario Bros 2, Super Mario Bros 3 – This year’s project is the entirety of the Super Mario series, and a good afternoon should get me through both of these games. After that things start to take a little longer, but if I can get at least these two done in February I’ll be in a good place.