Summer Movie Preview 2017

This year, instead of going through my anticipated summer movie releases by date, I have selected 15 movies coming out from May through August and ranked them from my least anticipated to frothing demand.

16. Transformers: The Last Knight – Okay, I picked 16, but Transformers is only on here so I can beat the dead horse of complaining about how terrible the Transformers movies are.  Some of the reactions I’ve heard to the trailers for this one have been somewhat positive, since it has a lot of elements that could make for a fun movie, but it mostly makes me wonder if people have memories like goldfish.  You’ve seen what Michael Bay will do with these movies: nothing is going to change. The other have ranged from merely bad to unwatchably putrid. This one will fall in that range somewhere.  Please don’t pay money to see it.

15. Baywatch – This looks like a bad idea, but occasionally taking an old TV show and turning it into a movie has worked.  I mean, 21 Jump Street exists. This looks to ride that movies coattails and while the trailers haven’t been great, they have had The Rock in them, which will always get my attention, if not my money.

14. Cars 3 – I love Pixar, but there was barely enough to Cars for one movie. Even in their sequels they have managed to find new ground to cover, but I can’t say I am remotely excited for the return of this franchise.

13. Alien: Covenant – I kind of feel like maybe this should be higher, but for all that it sounds good, it also sounds like something I won’t like.  For starters, it is heading back towards horror, a genre I don’t like at all.

12. The Mummy – Tom Cruise is a great action star.  But it is being directed by Alex Kurtzman, on half of the writing duo responsible for some of the absolute shittiest blockbusters of the last decade.  Maybe it won’t be terrible.

11. The Dark Tower – Once upon a time I loved this series. Then I read the last couple books (ie 6 & 7, I realize stuff has been published since) and they really didn’t connect with me.  This film has been gestating so long that it is hard to say how it will turn out, but I do like Idris Elba and cowboys in unconventional settings, so I’ll likely give it a shot.

10. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – I outright skipped the fourth movie, but I still have a lot of affection for those first three.  Mostly the first one, though the next two didn’t really hurt that.  I more missed the fourth than intentionally skipped it.  I don’t know what to make of this, other than to note that do I like Javier Bardem.

9. Valerian & The City of a Thousand Planets – I know it is based on a comic and I know it is directed by Luc Besson, but otherwise this is something of a mystery. Still, it is an original seeming sci-fi movie coming out in the heart of summer.  I’m all for it.

8. War For the Planet of the Apes – The last Planet of the Apes movie was surprisingly good. This one looks like it should solid as well.  I don’t know what else to say.

7. Atomic Blonde – Charlize Theron as a spy at the end of the Cold War, directed by one of the pair of directors of John Wick sounds good to me. I don’t know enough about it to put it higher on the list, although there has been some good early buzz.

6. Spider-Man: Homecoming – Sometimes I feel like the only person that doesn’t go crazy for Spider-Man, or the only one who felt nothing when he showed up in Captain America Civil War.  It should be fine, but I’m not especially excited for it.  There have been a lot of Spider-Man movies, and it has been quite a while since one of them was actually good.

5. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword – I think I might be the only one still on the Guy Ritchie train.  I wasn’t crazy about the Sherlock Holmes movies, but I loved Man from UNCLE.  I know this production has been troubled, but I am a big fan of fantasy movies and I am holding onto hope for this one.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 – This feels like the surest bet of this summer’s superhero movies, and all the trailers have looked really good.  While the first one had surprise on its side, this one is expected to be good and I hope it lives up to those expectations.

3. Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan doing a WWII movie.  I am all about that.  The first trailer looked really good and I trust Nolan.

2. Wonder Woman – The trailers have been great, I am on the near the upper extreme of enjoyment from previous DC movies; this looks really good to me.  It seems to be taking cues from the first Captain America movie, which is pretty good. I hope this turns out as good as it could be.

1. Baby Driver – This Summer has a Edgar Wright movie, which makes immediately better than any year without.  There are a lot of cool people in the cast and a lot of cool music in the trailer. Everything about this sounds great and I can’t wait to see it.

Did I miss anything?  Are there any other movies on the horizon that I should be excited for?  Is there anything else in August worth even considering other than The Dark Tower in the first week?

Mario Replay: Super Mario World

Super Mario World doesn’t change things a whole lot from Super Mario Bros 3. It is the closest any of these sequels has looked to the game before it, even taking into account SMW’s new SNES paint job. Yes, the series has made the jump to 16-bits, but the look of the series has started to solidify.  They aren’t going back to the drawing board every time now, or massaging an unrelated game to make it look like a Mario one.  This feeling is probably increased by my having most recently played the All-Stars versions of the NES games, were are designed to look as much like Super Mario World as possible.

In a few ways, Super Mario World reins things in from Super Mario Bros 3.  There are fewer power ups, the plethora from Mario 3 reduced to just the fire flower and the cape.  That is offset by making Mario himself more innately capable, with a new spin jump and the ability to climb on certain walls. That and the major addition of supporting character/power up Yoshi. While there  are fewer power ups, the levels are much larger. That facilitates the game’s change of focus from from speedy completion to more sedate exploration.  SMW’s levels, especially compared to its predecessor’s, are expansive.  It plays somewhat slower, but encourages a more thoughtful approach.  It helps that these larger levels are mostly very well designed.

Despite the fact that the games don’t play all that differently, there is a fundamental change to the Mario series that happens with Super Mario World.  Before that the games were all still arcade influenced action games, designed to be beaten in one sitting.  Super Mario World introduces saving and the game becomes much more exploration focused. While there are secrets in all of the games, compare what finding a secret area in Super Mario Bros or Super Mario Bros 3 gets the player with Super Mario World.  In SMB you can warp rooms, which let you skip large portions of the game.  The same is true in SMB3, where you find warp whistles that transport the player later in the game.  There secrets there are designed to help facilitate the experienced player beat the game by skipping it.  The games are designed to be beaten in one sitting, and jumping almost straight to world 4 really helps with that. Just knowing about the warp is not enough, an inexperienced player will be quickly stymied by the increased difficulty, but those who have seen it before can quickly get to the meat of the game.  In Super Mario World, though, the secrets are not there to let the player skip the game, but to open up more game to beat.  You can unlock star roads and alternate routes, but still you have to beat the vast majority of the game before you can have your showdown with Bowser.

That Super Mario World makes this change without dramatically changing how the game is played is rather remarkable. In many ways, Super Mario World is the last of the original run of Super Mario games.  After this we got Yoshi’s Island, which changes things up significantly, and then the 3D evolution with Super Mario 64. By the time the series came back to 2D with New Super Mario Bros it wasn’t really the same thing.  I’m not sure this is a bad thing.  I’m playing through the series as fast as possible, one after the other (while still taking time out for Zelda, Persona and Dragon Quest) and I would be overjoyed if there were another handful of 2D Mario games before the series went 3D.  Hell, we got 10 Mega Man games in that same time frame, and most of them are more than worthwhile.  But each of the console Mario games has a distinctive feel.  Mario World and Mario 3 might the be the closest any of the games feel to each other, with the exclusion of the glorified expansion pack The Lost Levels, and even between those two there are significant differences.  I don’t see how Nintendo could have fit in any more games without repeating themselves.  Super Mario World is the perfect end point for this vein of the series.

Super Mario World remains one of my favorite games.  In the eternal, pointless argument between Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario World, I am strongly in favor of the SNES game. This playthrough did nothing to change that.  I love Super Mario World, even if I usually peter out about three worlds in. Now it is on to relatively unexplored territory.

Dragon Quest VIII 3DS

I think I had kind of forgotten how important Dragon Quest VIII was to me until I played the 3DS remake.  I always remembered liking the game well enough, slotting it somewhere in the middle of the series when rating my enjoyment of them.  I liked it better than the primitive DQ1 or the grindy DQ2 or DQ6, which I just don’t much care for, but I didn’t consider it a favorite like DQ 4 or 5 or even 9.  It just wasn’t a game I thought much about. Playing the 3DS port/remake, which improves the game in several ways but is also hampered enough by technical issues to not be strictly the definitive version, really brought back how much I liked that game.

During what in hindsight appears to be something of a Golden Age during the heart of the PS2/GC/XBOX days, I largely drifted out of gaming.  I owned a GameCube, but despite a steady stream of solid games, between Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker near the start of 2003 and Resident Evil 4 in early 2005, which was the last new GameCube game I bought before I got a PS2, I played maybe 5 new games. I bought Viewtiful Joe and Tales of Symphonia for myself, got Skies of Arcadia Legends and Lord of The Rings: Return of the King for Christmas, and my brother and I went in together to Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Most of those are great games.  Viewtiful Joe and Skies of Arcadia Legends are among my all-time favorites. Return of the King was a great co-op experience during Winter Break, but I have neither the time nor inclination to revisit it and see if it holds up.  Tales of Symphonia was the right game at the right time in the summer of 2004. And Crystal Chronicles is at the very least interesting.  While those were some great games, and there were plenty of great games hitting the GC and other systems, I found myself less and less interested. While the RPGs in that list took some time to play, none of the others are all that lengthy. Some of my disinterest is could be down to the GC not really having the RPGs that really interested me at the time, but I didn’t really feel a pull to get a PS2, where those games could be found. At least, I didn’t until I saw FFXII on the horizon.

The inexorable pull of Final Fantasy XII was enough to get me to finally take the plunge on a PS2. Since that game was the primary pull for me to get the system, before it was released late in 2006, I picked up a copy of Dragon Quest VIII, which came with a FFXII demo disc. I was interested, though not exactly excited, to play Dragon Quest VIII. The only game in the series I had played was Dragon Warrior on NES and while I had fond memories of it, I hadn’t played it in a decade or so.  Dragon Quest 8 was a JRPG, which I like, with an appealing graphical style not unlike that in Wind Waker.  I wasn’t ready for how much I would enjoy it.

The essence of the 3DS remake of DQ8 is the same as the PS2 original.  That game charmed me with its aesthetics and is back to basics approach to the JRPG.  Most of the games of that genre that I love emphasize a sense of adventure over strictly mechanical or storytelling concerns.  That is why I love Skies of Arcadia and Lunar.  While no Dragon Quest games are strictly complex, DQ8 rolls its mechanics back to the basics.  There is a tiny amount of character customization, but otherwise the game is very simple.  Neither is the story particularly innovative or original.  It has a silent protagonist on a quest to save a princess, join by a trio of like-minded companions. That shouldn’t be the recipe for a beloved classic, but DQ8 shines in the execution of its very simple adventure.  

One thing the game did better than any game before it how well it realized a world.  Other PS2 games, like Final Fantasy X, eliminated the overworld in favor of linear pathways to follow.  Dragon Quest 8 went the other way, creating a full sized world for the player to explore.  Better than any other jrpg I had ever played, Dragon Quest 8 made me feel like I was in the world of the game.  That feeling is greatly helped by its excellent graphics, which helps create a cohesive world.


The simple story, the impetuous for exploring the game’s excellent world, doesn’t work without solid characters and that is another area where the game shines. Both its playable and non-playable characters a delightful and memorable.  Jessica and Angelo are simply well executed stock genre characters. Like the game itself, they break little new ground, but are perfect for what they are.  Yangus, though, is the real star, with his cockney accent and general scruffiness.  His interactions with King Trode are a constant delight. The 3DS adds his sometimes paramour Red as a playable characters, and she is likewise a lot of fun. Then there are the characters that make up the casts in each town the player visits.  There are too many to mention.

Something about this game’s back to basics approach, stripping the genre down to its essence and concentrating on the presentation just worked for me, both in 2007 and in 2017. Back then, I was hoping that the forward thinking, groundbreaking Final Fantasy XII would be the game to make me love playing video games again. But Dragon Quest VIII isn’t the most complex game or the most original, but it is a perfectly executed take on the genre.

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap

I wrote several years ago, when I was thinking of getting into the youtube game with a series of videos about Sega Genesis games (a desire that hasn’t really went away), about the best Genesis game that was not released, at least not on that console, in America: Monster World IV. That game was something of a revelation.  It is a near perfect 16-bit action platformer, as good as anything on the Genesis or SNES.  Recently, the previous game in that series’ convoluted lineage got a remake.  Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap (Alternatively Monster World II: The Dragon’s Trap) is one of the absolute best Master System games, and this very faithful remake proves that it mostly holds up.

While Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap – or Wonder Girl if you so choose – is most striking for its marvelous new visuals, it is a very faithful to the original in how it plays.  Despite featuring some of the most impressive 2D visuals I’ve ever seen, the game still plays almost identically to its original version. In fact, with the press of a button you can switch from the new graphics to the old and nothing else changes. It is astounding that they managed to get it to look so good with compromising in regards to controls or animation.  There is usually some sort of trade off there, but here it is seamless. I have praised Wayforward, the best in current 2D games, for their efforts in games like Shantae ½ Genie Hero and DuckTales Remastered, but this game both looks and plays better than either of those two games.  It is really just an astounding achievement.

It isn’t a perfect package, though.  Sometimes a game from 1989 plays like a game from 1989.  It can be obtuse at times, with unclued secret doors, as well difficult in ways that feel unfair.  There is no way to square this circle. The game likely would have been improved for modern audiences if it was friendlier with checkpoints and respawns, but I can’t fault them for sticking closely to the original.

As for what it is, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is a sort of metroidvania exploration focused platformer.  It really is mostly straightforward, with each level largely being a straight line to the end, followed by a trip back to the hub town to follow the next level to the end of its line. You collect subweapons, live extenders and gold to buy new weapons and armor.  It isn’t anything you can’t find in a dozen other games, but it was something of a trailblazer in its day and it is all around really well executed.  The game’s gimmick is that at the beginning the protagonist is cursed and turned into a dragon.  As the game progresses, similar curses turn the player character into several other forms, like a mouse and a lion.  Each form has different abilities and eventually you can use each of them to traverse the stages.

Really, it is a great game that has aged better than many of its vintage given a wonderful fresh coat of paint and presented with love and care that is all but unmatched.  Any fans of 8 and 16-bit games owe it to themselves to pick this game up.

The Fate of the Furious Review

The Fast and Furious series, despite its recent success, is in a state of flux. As emotional as the previous entry’s climax was, it also pushed the ridiculousness to the absolute limits and removed a vital part of the series’ appeal. Fate of the Furious finds a way to forge ahead after the loss of Paul Walker’s Brian, but the loss of his grounding presence is felt. While it doesn’t attempt to match Furious 7’s cartoonish ridiculousness, it also can’t match the movies genuine emotion. Still, there is a lot to like about this 8th entry in the series, like an increased amount of The Rock and more cohesive plot.

The Fate of the Furious starts with Vin Diesel’s Dom and Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty on their honeymoon in Cuba. After a very entertaining race, Dom meets with Cipher (Charlize Theron), who shows him something that upsets him. When the team is contacted by Hobbs (The Rock) to join him on a secret mission to retrieve an emp device from Germany, Dom turns on the team, stealing the device for Cipher. While Hobbs initially goes to jail for his part in the operation, he is soon extracted by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) along with a new forced ally, the previous movies villain Deckard Shaw. From there, the team travels around the globe trying to stop Dom and Cipher while Dom tries to extricate himself from her blackmail. There are some really good action sequences, like the prison break and an extended fight sequence on a plane that makes full use of Jason Statham’s skills.

There are some weak spots. Charlize Theron is almost completely wasted as Cipher, spending most of the movie standing on a plane looking at a computer monitor saying nonsense like “hack them all.” While Statham’s face turn is welcome, it feels like they all but ignore the fact that he killed Han. That should be a big deal. Also, once recurring character gets the rawest of raw deals. The team dynamic is also not quite what it should be. Part of that is the movie itself, with Dom being forced to play the villain, but it also due to the lack of Brian to be the counterweight to Dom’s self-seriousness. The movie tries to find a balance with more of Hobbs and an increased role for Statham, but neither of them are really playing people. They are almost cartoon characters. Completely delightful, but they are far from the grounding presence that Walker was. In a movie series that has pushed far into the stratosphere of ridiculousness as this one, having at least one character that plays it a little small really helps.

I’ve read several reviews compare Fate of the Furious to the Pierce Brosnan James Bond movies. This is usually an unfavorable comparison – because people tend to be wrong about how awesome those Bond movies were – but I think it is both apt and part of what makes the movie so enjoyable. It is a spy movie, filled with ridiculous near future technology and action that underplays its ridiculousness. While the stunts aren’t quite as crazy as the last movie, the plot coils around on itself into the pinnacle of preposterousness. The movie even manages to pull off the villain reveal that Spectre tripped over so pathetically. Fate of the Furious doesn’t come close to ascending to the heights of Fast 5, but it is still a solid entry into what the series became after the movie launched the series to the top of the action movie heap.


25 Years 25 Games 23: Robotrek

I hate to do this again, but I’ve got to tap out on Robotrek.  I’ve tried to play through, but I am getting nothing out of forcing my way through it.  Robotrek – its Japanese title of Slapstick is much more fitting – is interesting in theory, but I didn’t find it so to actually play.

Robotrek was developed by prolific SNES developer Quintet, which alone makes it worth remembering.  They are responsible for classics, or near classics, like Actraiser, Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia. (Many people would list Terranigma with those, I’ll find out as soon as I finish with Lufia 2.)  Despite some novel ideas, this one doesn’t stand with those. But while I didn’t have much patience for it after a year glutting myself on 16-bit games, I do think it worthwhile.

It feels something like a proto-Pokemon.  It is a jrpg where the player character doesn’t actually do the fighting.  You build robots that do your fighting for you.  Much of the game is based around the protagonist finding junk and inventing new weapons and armors for the robots.  This either requires some trial and error, which I don’t currently have the time or patience for, or use a guide, which saps all the fun out of playing.

My problem with the game is really that it is toothless.  It is clearly designed for a slightly younger set than some other classic SNES games; more for the 10 year old rather than 12. That isn’t a problem when it comes to the clean, pleasant but not particularly detailed graphics or the jaunty music, but it turns the gameplay into something tedious. There is little difficulty, so it all starts to feel like wasting your time.

I am sounding more negative about this game than I feel.  It is interesting, but playing it it just hasn’t grabbed me.  And the more I force myself to keep playing it, the less like it and the less I want to play.  That is why I am abandoning it and getting on with the last couple of entries in this project.  I don’t want to hate this game.  Maybe if I come back in a year or two it will grab me, but it just isn’t grabbing me now.

The Definitive Fast & Furious Rankings

I was a late convert to the Fast & Furious series.  I saw the first movie back in high school and more or less enjoyed it.  The Fast & The Furious was one of ubiquitous movies high school movies where I’m from.  Everyone seemed to own it, either on DVD or VHS and those who didn’t own it were either renting it or borrowing it from a friend.  I can’t say the movie that much of an impression on me, but it was one of about 4 movies (this, an Austin Powers, Varsity Blues, Cruel Intentions) that always seemed to be playing in the background from junior high until I graduated.  I had seen it, it I had never really thought about it.  I found 2 Fast 2 Furious actively stupid and from there put the movie series out of my mind. I didn’t outright hate the series, I just couldn’t be forced to care.

The next three movies hit without me ever even considering changing my mind about it.  I was told that Fast 5 was excellent, but I didn’t listen.  Then I accidentally sawa trailer for Fast & Furious 6 before some movie, and I realized that I might have been wrong.  I still didn’t make it out to the sixth movie, but I grabbed a cheap DVD copy of Fast 5 before Furious 7 hit.  Even with all the love that movie had got I wasn’t ready for how much I enjoyed it. I instantly became a fan.

Now we are on the eve of the release of Fate of the Furious.  It isn’t quite my most anticipated movie this year, what with Star Wars and Justice League and Baby Driver and did you see that Thor: Ragnarok trailer, but it is probably in the top 5.  So before I amble down to the cinema to watch Fate of the Furious, I decided to rank the series.  Because that is really easy and quick and other people are doing it and they are doing it wrong.

7: 2 Fast 2 Furious – I don’t feel quite as uncharitable toward this movie as I did when I first saw it, and in many ways it lays down the path that the better entries in the series would take even if this one doesn’t execute it especially well.  But it is still a movie that doesn’t have a lot to recommend about it.

6: The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift – I know I’ve seen it, but it exists as kind of void in my memory.  It it largely unconnected to the rest of the series, other than introducing Han, which is reason enough not to ignore it.  Still, it probably the last movie I’d rewatch, despite thinking it is a slightly better film.

5: Fast & Furious
This movie is kind of necessary for the evolution of the series into into what it would become, this movie is kind of a miserable slog.  It leans into all of the series worst tendencies, but it also does a lot of plot lifting to get Dom and Brian back together.

4: The Fast & The Furious
This first one is just a moderately well-made Point Break knock-off.  Everything is laughably low stakes for what the series would become, but there is just enough interesting to make the whole thing watchable.

3: Furious 7
The end of this movie is emotionally devastating, and the rest of the movie is pure delightful nonsense.  It throws out any pretensions of presenting anything remotely realistic for parachuting cars out airplanes and driving them through skyscrapers.  It is excellent.

2: Fast & Furious 6
F&F6 sits at the midpoint between the bonkers lunacy of Furious 7 and the the regular over the top action movie nonsense of Fast 5.  It’s plot does feature a jumbo jumbo jet, a tank racing down a highway and plenty of amnesia, but it is perfectly fun and propulsive. It is a close call between this and 7, but this one barely edges it out.

1: Fast 5 – This is just a notch short of being a perfect action movie.  The heist movie structure gives it a perfect reason to bring in most of the memorable characters from previous movies and adding The Rock as an admirable adversary is just perfect.  It has great action scenes that perfectly toe the line between gonzo nonsense and still being relatively grounded.  It is the perfect expression of what this series could be.

What I Read in March 2017

I only managed to finish three books in March, but I’m pretty happy with where I am reading wise this year so far. I am fairly certain I will meet my yearly goal.

The Gangster

Clive Cussler & Justin Scott

This Isaac Bell series has long been something of a guilty pleasure of mine.  This one, though, sort of missed for me.  As always, I love the setting and like this series fake Pinkerton Van Dorn organization, but the plot here was thin even by the standards of this series.  It ostensibly gets Bell involved with the new forming American Mafia, but also ties in some robber baron stuff and a potential Presidential assassination.  Usually these books tie their seemingly disparate plot elements together, this one doesn’t really make sense to me. It end up feeling like a big missed opportunity.  The stuff with the mafia and how that group, and similar Irish gangster groups, are appealing to immigrants is on the table.  The book kind of sets that up, but it quickly steps away because it isn’t interested in exploring that. Instead, of following through and developing a theme, it brings in a fictional robber baron to be the actual villain. He lends the already on the run gangster some protection while he enacts a plan to assassinate President Roosevelt.  All of the elements that usually make this series a lot of fun, but in this one they just didn’t come together.

N is for Noose

Sue Grafton

Another Christmas gift book, a stack which is rapidly shrinking. When I am gifted a book, I usually feel compelled to put it on top of my reading list.  This Christmas I asked for “mysteries” with no other guidance given, and that is what I got.  Reading the random smattering of books I received has helped me get a clearer picture of what I like and what I want.  After reading N is for Noose, I’m not sure more of Sue Grafton’s books are what I’m looking for.

I don’t mean to be harsh, it isn’t that I outright disliked the book, but I never shook the feeling that this isn’t really what I was looking for. Despite the fact that on a surface level this is exactly what I am looking for.  Maybe it is because I started with what appears to be the 14th books in a series.  One thing I did really like about N is for Noose is that it is a mystery where the mystery is what exactly the detective is investigating.  That is very unclear, let me try again.  It is a mystery about the lack of a mystery.  [] is called in to investigate even though there is no evidence or appearance of a crime.  The man she is looking into died of what everyone, even his wife who hired her, agrees is natural causes.  But something doesn’t feel right.  So she just has to poke around until she finds something, which she does because otherwise there is no book.  But that lack of central focus also makes the book kind of aimless for a long stretch.  When it all breaks, it breaks really fast and just sort of explodes through the end.  Our protagonist doesn’t find anything out, she just spooks people with something to hide until they uncover it for her.

I mostly enjoyed N is for Noose, but it didn’t quite scratch my mystery itch like I wanted.  The only things I’ve found so far that do are from Golden Age of Mystery writers, like Christie or Sayers.

The Winds of Khalakovo

Bradley Beaulieu

This is the first book in a fantasy series that I listened to as an audiobook. That makes it hard for me to judge it fairly I think. I liked parts of the book, but I had some problems with it. How can I be sure those problems didn’t arise from listening to it rather than reading it myself? Not knowing for sure makes me a little unsure of my feelings toward this book.

The Winds of Khalakovo is set in a very Russian feeling fantasy world, with many Russian or Russian sounding words used to create it sense of place. There are lots of nyets and das. It follows tow nobles who are readying for an arranged marriage, Nikandr and Atiana, as well as Nikandr’s low born mistress Rehada. The three of them move through the book as the tense political situation on the island where Nikandr’s father rules explodes. That political situation is quite complex, with multiple Duchies at each other’s throats and a conquered/colonized people split into a few factions who disagree with how to deal with the ruling class. Then there is the equally complex magical system. Each of the three protagonists is sympathetic, though the supporting characters are much harder to get a read on.

My big problem with the book is one of timelines. Frequently there seem to jumps in time in the middle of ongoing scenes, with a character doing something and people reacting as if it had been done hours or even days ago. Someone will be preparing an escape only for the next sentence to refer to escape as having happened in the past. This problem might be due to me listening to the book instead of having it in my hands, reading it. If I was reading it myself I could thumb back and make sure I had everything straight, with the audiobook it just keeps going. Even with my flipping back and forth I still read faster than the audiobook goes, but I can’t read it at work that way. Seemingly every few chapters the book jumped forward, with what had been brewing actions having happened I guess when I let my concentration lapse. I can’t know for sure if this is a problem with the writing or if I wasn’t listening attentively enough. I didn’t kill my enjoyment of the book, but it made things feel unsatisfactorily scattered.

What I Watched March 2017


Kong: Skull Island – read review here. ****

The Hateful Eight – I still really like this movie. It isn’t my favorite Tarantino, but he has never made a bad film. This one has a lot of great moments and a ton of great performances, but it doesn’t quite delight me like Inglorious Basterds or Kill Bill. *****

Logan – read review here. ****

Far From the Madding Crowd – This is a competent, enjoyably literary adaptation. It isn’t going to blow anyone away, but it is well put together and well-acted and just all around enjoyable. ***1/2

Beauty and the Beast – read review here. **1/2

Sucker Punch – My thoughts haven’t changed much from when I saw it years ago, but I remained very impressed by it. Zack Snyder might have failed with this movie, but it audacious work. He turns intentionally turns the exploitation up to a disgusting degree, daring viewers to be titillated by an undeniably gross scenario. He doesn’t quite bring it all together in the end, but the intent is clear. **1/2

Pete’s Dragon – Calling something boring is a lazy criticism, avoiding actually engaging with a fictional work, but I can’t really think of any other way to describe this than dull. It has great actors and good special effects, but it all just sits on the screen, lifeless. It elicited no emotion from me. **

Ghost in the Shell – read about it here. **1/2


Riverdale – This show really came into focus as it neared the halfway mark. Archie is still kind of a doofy hole in the middle of things, but I guess that is why the show isn’t called Archie; he isn’t the main character here, but just another piece of the ensemble. I don’t know that this show is good, but it is compelling.

Iron Fist – The reviews for this show weren’t kind, but after watching I have to say they weren’t wrong. It is the weakest of Netflix’s Marvel shows, but not by that great a margin. These shows started strong, with the solid first season of Daredevil and the excellent Jessica Jones, but Daredevil Season 2 was a muddled mess and Luke Cage hid its weaknesses behind a strong central performance. This one is just as much of an amorphous blob as most of these shows have been, but without that one terrific element to bind everything together. It takes itself way too seriously for a show about a man who does magical kung fu, it barely deigns to grapple with its central premise by not even showing Kun-lun, and it wastes so much time on the squabbling of the Meachum family. It is simply a mess. I’ll still come back for Defenders

Legion – As much as I like shows like The Flash that strive to put a superhero on screen in all of his comic book glory, there is something to be said for the approach FX and Noah Hawley have taken with Legion. They have taken a few X-Men characters and concepts and instead of trying to make them comic book accurate they have built a show around those concepts with just a handful of ties to other X-Men stuff. They have identified the essence of the title character, David Haller who occasionally goes by Legion, and of their villain, the mental parasite that has taken root in his brain. It shows the same strengths as Hawley’s Fargo, with a bunch of really well realized supporting characters. It manages to be a mind bending mystery that is shockingly comprehensible and straight forward. It fools the viewer with apparent misdirection, but the show never lies to the viewer. It really shows how mediocre the Netflix shows have been. The CW shows are operating on a different model and budget, but Legion does prestige superheroes and blows the likes of Daredevil and Luke Cage out of the water.

Snatch – I really shouldn’t like this show as much as I do. I really like the movie Snatch, but tries to ape its energy and ends up as kind of a pale shadow. It has the quick cuts and the zooms, but it employs them haphazardly. The stars, including Rupert “Ron Weasely” Grint, are having fun, though, and the show is actually structurally very strong. It might be lacking in dialogue, surprise and budget, but each episode is built on a solid structure. Each episode tells a story and builds logically from one place to the next. It is also light enough that its flaws don’t really hold it back. It is an enjoyable gangster/heist show that doesn’t really aspire to greatness, so it is fine when it doesn’t reach it. It is a solid bit of light fun that I wouldn’t mind seeing more of.

CW Superheroes – Somewhere during this season, Legends of Tomorrow has embraced its premise and become the best of the CW’s four shows. That has something to do with a little back half faltering from The Flash and Supergirl. The Flash has gone to the evil speedster well one too many times. It still shines on one off episodes, like the recent musical Supergirl crossover, but the central storyline is kind of a bust. Supergirl has been essentially coopted by Mon-el, turning him into the focal character at the expense of everyone else on the show. Both shows are still quite enjoyable, but only Legends of Tomorrow is really firing on all cylinders. As for Arrow, I’ll catch up when it hits Netflix in a month or two.

Ghost in the Shell Review

Ghost in the Shell is the last release in what has been a packed March for would be blockbusters. It was equally anticipated and dreaded by nerds, because it was an adaptation of a muck loved anime but also because they seemed deadest on scrubbing nearly everything interesting from it. The movie is not the complete disaster it could have been, like the Dragon Ball Z movie, but it also can’t meet the standards of the films that inspired it, like Robocop, Blade Runner and the original Ghost in the Shell movie. Ghost in the Shell is decently executed, but bland, emphasizing visuals and style over story.

I came into this not planning to even mention the whitewashing stuff. That conversation is an important one to have, but at some point you just have to deal with the movie that was made and not the one they should have made. But Ghost in the Shell makes it impossible to ignore this aspect by making it a central aspect of the film. Without spoiling things, how they handle the relationship between Scarlett Johansson’s Major and Ghost in the Shell usual protagonist Motoko Kusanagi seems to try to address concerns by doubling down on the problem. Instead of just doing its own thing, it draws attention to the difference and makes it impossible to enjoy the movie without the fact that they changed the race of the central character in mind. That approach contrast with how they handled Batou, who is also played by a white actor, but he just plays the character and is one of the best parts of the movie. Or they could have just left her Japanese like Chief Aramaki, played Beat Takeshi who speaks entirely in Japanese and is another high point.

Leaving aside her race, the changes made to the character make her a much less interesting protagonist. The Major is a stone cold badass, but Major (not the lack of definite article) is a robotic victim. Or I guess she a little of both. They strip the character of her identity and she spends the whole movie trying to figure out who she is. She still does some badass things, but not because she is innately a badass, but because she believes herself worthless and expendable. The whole movie is about her reclaiming who she starts out as in every other version of this property. Also, the story is now all about who she is, instead of being content to be a sci fi thriller. There are philosophical and ethical issues of identity and memory that are inherent in the concept of Ghost in the Shell, but this movie is very careful not to engage with any of them. There is little to no questioning in this movie, other than a tiny bit when Major realizes that the big mystery involves her personally.

Despite all my complaints, the movie is fairly well executed. It does a great job establishing in the setting, even if it isn’t interested in exploring it much. Most of the action scenes are well executed. The story makes sense. It is missing any semblance of a hook to take it from competently enjoyable to actually good. It is not unlike the director’s previous effort, Snow White and the Huntsman. That was another competently executed by barely engaging movie.

There just isn’t anything below the surface here. With the movie drawing attention to its whitewashing instead of just making the choice and going with it, it really needed to be good otherwise. And it kind of isn’t. Ghost in the Shell is all shell and no ghost.