What I Read in July 2017

July was another three book month, and all three were relatively short Agatha Christie books I picked up in a recent binge.  This time I have some excuse for my paltry reading efforts, though.  In the middle of July I made the decision to attend law school.  Well, I had been planning to go to law school for some time, I took the LSAT last March, but in July I decided which law school and that I would be going this fall.  So most of July was spent planning the move and getting ready for school.  That did not leave a lot of time for reading. I am going to guess that the next three years are not going to afford me a lot of time for recreational reading, though there is no chance I stop entirely.  For now, I’ve still got some Agatha Christie that I haven’t finished, and for July I have three of hers that I read.

So Many Steps to Death

Agatha Christie

This is a strange one.  It is kind of a spy thriller, like a Bond book. Only instead of a hyper competent spy at the middle of it, this stars a woman who just so happens to look quite a bit like the wife of a suspected Communist defector who died in an accident.  So she is recruited to take that woman’s place as she goes to meet up with her husband.

It gets into some fully crazy territory, with a secret villain lair hidden as a leper colony and faked plane crashes to cover people’s tracks.  I don’t know that I would call it particularly good.  It is like one of the more ridiculous Bond movies in its plotting, but it moves at a fast enough clip that I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

Five Little Pigs

Agatha Christie

This is a fun one.  16 years after her mother was convicted of murdering her father, Carla goes to Poirot to ask him to investigate what really happened, since her mother sent her a letter from prison saying that she didn’t do it.  Intrigued, Poirot sets out to investigate the other guests at the house at the time of the murder, uncovering the sordid affairs of all involved.

This is among my favorite of Poirot’s outings.  It sets up a perfectly limited group of suspects and does something of a Rashomon with them, (this book predates Rashomon) letting everyone tell their versions of the story and uncovering lies and reasons for lies with the conflicting takes. When it gets to the end and all is clear, it is just about as satisfying a mystery as I have read. This is a good one.

Sad Cypress

Agatha Christie

Another very good one.  This one does not hide its culprit especially well, but it does hide the motive.  There were only three people there when one of them was murdered; one of the other two is almost certainly the murderer.  And the book gives ample reason to believe that the accused is responsible, though since Poirot is investigating on her behalf it is almost certain that she is not.  So you turn to the other possible suspect, and there is no reason at all to suspect her.  This in a mystery is suspicious in and of itself.

This is one that seems more about the characters than the plot; at least as far Poirot mysteries are concerned.  It gives more intimate details of the lives of it primary characters.  Lots of details that are not primarily related to the case. With the ticking clock of the impending trial as a backdrop, you really feel for some of these characters.  It is really enjoyable.

Final Crisis

Grant Morrison, JG Jones, Doug Mahnke and Others

I’m sure I’ve written about this before, but my excitement for the Justice League movie got me to pull the best Justice League vs Darkseid story.  Yeah, I said it, though I expect the movie to take more of its cues from the New 52 origin.  Final Crisis is a beautiful, wonderful mess.  I will write a full review of this book at some point, so I am saving deeper thoughts for that.

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Summer Movie Round Up 2017

The summer movie season has ended with something like a month long whimper. July had some good stuff, including from what I hear War For the Planet of the Apes, which seems to be the only worthwhile wide release I missed this summer. Maybe Cars 3 as well. Ehh. So how about a countdown of my favorite movies of the summer.

10 Atomic Blonde – I’m kind of on the middle with this one.  The action is excellent, the spy stuff is turgid. I would say it is certainly worth watching, but it isn’t in the same strata as some other recent action movies, like either John Wick.

9 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – There is a lot of dead space in this movie, but there it had just enough energy to be enjoyable, especially since Jack Sparrow was back to being the wild card rather than the protagonist.

8 Spider-Man Homecoming – I am going to guess I am the low man on this one.  Something about this movie just didn’t click with me.  I don’t know what lesson Peter was supposed to have learned and I couldn’t really sympathize with the supposedly sympathetic villain after he straight up murdered one of his allies and made a joke about it.  I get why people liked it, but I only barely did.

7 King Arthur: Legend of the Sword – There is plenty that doesn’t quite work here, but I found the general tone and energy to be compelling.  It isn’t a great movie, and I can see people just straight up disliking it, but something about it just clicked for me.

6 Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – In my heart, this movie would be about 4 spots higher. I am already regretting not putting it above Guardians 2.  It is a love it or hate it sci fi adventure and I am firmly on the love it side. It is wild, perfect nonsense.

5A Okja – I gave this a very strong review when I first saw it and I stand by that. But in making this list I am looking at the movies I would most like to watch right now, and I don’t feel a compelling need to watch this again right now. From here on up are the movies I genuinely like and have excellent chances to show up on my year’s 10 best list. It is also the only Netflix movie on the list, and since some other Netflix movies would have made had I counted them, I went ahead and gave Okja a bit of an asterisk.

5 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 – Just like the first, it is tons of fun with a killer soundtrack and an excellent cast.  Some of the jokes in this one were big misses for me, but the vast majority of the movie is pure fun.

4 Logan Lucky – I am not the biggest Soderbergh fan. Not that I don’t like his movies, only that I have really only seen the Ocean’s Trilogy and those mostly very recently.  This is along those same lines in terms of quality and content.  Logan Lucky trades the Vegas glitz for Appalachian grit, but it is still a slickly funny heist movie. It is the perfect late summer antidote to big explosions and CGI.

3 Dunkirk – another of Nolan’s perfect puzzle box movies. It is completely enthralling, though somewhat distant. Any of the three stories it combined would have been enough for its own movie and he combines them masterfully.

2 Wonder Woman – This is a superhero movie in a different mold from most current ones, with a stronger sense of earnestness than any since Captain America or even the original Superman.  It does revert to form in the last act, but everything before that is great.

1 Baby Driver – There really isn’t any question here.  Baby Driver is the easy frontrunner for my movie of the year. It would take a tremendous upset for anything to unseat it.  It might not be the best Edgar Wright movie, but even the worst Edgar Wright movie would rank highly on any yearly list.

I’ll be back soon with a post highlighting the movies I’m looking forward to over the last third of the year.  The summer might have been half lackluster, but there are some big movies coming over the next few months.

The Dark Tower Review

I am disappointed on all fronts with The Dark Tower, as much because it is not especially bad as I am because it is not good.  I am not one, generally, to root against a movie.  I didn’t want The Dark Tower to be bad, but as its release neared and possibility that it would be good seemed ever more remote, I had hoped that it would be truly, spectacularly awful. At least that would have been interesting.  The Dark Tower can’t even manage that. It bungles everything just enough to blandly pointless, not to be terrible enough to get any ironic enjoyment out of it.

Idris Elba, who is awesome as usual, plays Roland, the last of the gunslingers.  I start with him, even though he is not the lead.  That is the young Tom Taylor who plays Jake Chambers, a young boy who has visions of the alternate reality where Roland and his enemy, the Man in Black, live.  The movie follows his story, not Roland’s, for almost the entire first half and the second half is at best even between the two.

Fans of the book will recognize many elements of the movie, but many of them who have been rearranged into new forms. I don’t want to give much away, because spotting call backs to the books is one of the chief pleasures anyone watching this movie will glean from it.

It starts with Jake having visions of the Man in Black and his attacks on the Tower.  The people around Jake think he is crazy, including his step-dad, who wants to send him to some kind of sanitarium.  Just as he is to be sent upstate to visit this facility, which he already knows is connected to the Man in Black and his evil allies.

From there, it is mostly a collection of disinterested clichés.  Roland has given up on his gunslinger calling, but Jake attempts to inspire him to be better while learning about the relationship between various alternate realities.  Idris Elba is really good, but the movie can’t maintain any moment or generate any really interest outside of a few isolated scenes, which leaves him with nothing to do most of the time.

I’ll repeat that it isn’t a disaster.  It feels like a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, which ended up sanding off anything interesting.  It makes sense from a scene to scene basis, though it never really takes the time to explain itself.  It feels less propulsive and more like the connections were edited out. Still, there is hint of something good here that just couldn’t find its way out.

I’m not really a fan of The Dark Tower books. I was at one time, but I really didn’t care for much in the last two books and found the ending somewhat insulting.  I haven’t read the books at all since I finished the 7th just a few days after I got it for Christmas the year if its release.  Watching this movie reminded me of what I once liked about this series, even if it actually delivers very little of that enjoyment.

**1/2

Dunkirk Review

Dunkirk is another of Christopher Nolan’s puzzle box movies. Taking what could have been a very straightforward war movie, he does things with the timeline to make it clearly his own.  Even without the differing timelines, it still would not have been a particularly traditional war movie.  Dunkirk is an intense, impossible to look away from movie that is unlike any I’ve ever seen.

Dunkirk is a war movie, chronicling the escape from the Nazis of the defeated allied army from the beach at Dunkirk. It does this without ever showing an enemy soldier, other than a few planes.  They shoot from off-screen and drop bombs from mostly unseen planes.  It is all about the the soldiers on the beach, the civilians coming over in their own boats to help evacuate and the pilots flying cover for them.

Each of those three segments is also somewhat oddly structured.  For one, the characters are barely named.  We get some names, but we learn almost nothing about the majority of the characters.  We know almost nothing about the soldiers on the beach other than they are soldiers on the beach who want to get off the beach.  We know nothing about the pilots other than that they are pilots.  We do learn a fraction more about the civilians on the boat, but only a fraction.  That is not to say it doesn’t create relatable characters, only that they are largely examined in the present rather than the past.

Then there is how it handles its three different timelines.  Events on the beach take place over the course of a week, while events on the boat take place over the course of one day and events in the plane take place over the course of an hour. So things happen in the planes before we see their effects on the boat or the beach.

I’m not sure the structure, other than being interesting in and of itself, helps the telling of the story.  The story being told is good enough to not need any embellishing.  Each of the three storylines would be enough to support an entire movie in their own right.  There is heroism to be found in each part.

That is where the movie truly succeeds.  Each scene is tense and enthralling.  Whether it is the soldiers trying to escape a sinking ship or the pilots in an intense dogfight, every scene has something to add.  It is too the movie’s credit that each even though it never lets up it also never feels overwhelming.  It manages to make the evacuation seem not like a victory, which it wasn’t, but an achievement.

Dunkirk is easily among the best movies I’ve seen this year.  Nolan is a master craftsman and this movie shows it.  And if I am being honest, when the movie nears its end with Churchill’s address to the nation I teared up a little bit.  Nolan has long since proven himself a master, and Dunkirk is another feather in his cap.

*****

What I Watched July 2017

Movies

Nocturnal Animals – I don’t really know what to make of this movie. It opens with deliberately off putting imagery that is almost completely disconnected from the rest of the movie before starting its various narratives. Half of the movie follows Amy Adams as she reads the manuscript of her ex-husband’s novel, with some flashback scenes to their marriage and its dissolution.  The other half follows the plot of the novel.  The novel sections are vastly more compelling than the others.  It is a mostly straightforward crime/revenge story, with Michael Shannon as a cop dying of cancer who agrees to help a husband get revenge for his murdered wife and child.  The other thread is trying to do something more, but it even in its tale of low key revenge I couldn’t help but think about the details it has to elide.  It sets up Adams’ character as living an empty and unhappy existence. One that a possible reconnection with her ex could change. But it elides the whole life she has lived in the 20 years since she last saw her husband, which included raising a child and building a successful career.  I think the movie wants us to side with the husband and his raising and dashing of her hopes, but I’m not sure about that.  Nocturnal Animals is a well made but largely cold movie.  It pushes the viewer away, making you want to analyze instead of feel. I can’t quite sort out my feelings toward it, but there is clear quality here.  ****

Ocean’s Eleven – This is a perfectly slick, fun little caper.  It really does feel like an awfully small movie for all the star power it brings to bear.  It isn’t one of my favorite movies, but there really isn’t anything I can point to that I dislike about it.  ****

Man of Steel – I watched this and its sequel for something I was writing that probably won’t happen. (Maybe in the lead up to Justice League.) I am ever frustrated by how wrong this movie gets some things despite how right or close to right it gets others.  If it didn’t have that absurdly destructive last act maybe people would remember how truly heroic Superman is early. Maybe if it didn’t screw up Pa Kent so badly I could watch it without making a face.  ***

Batman v Superman – I like this movie more each time I watch it.  I know that my reaction is the opposite of just about everybody else’s, I don’t care, I greatly enjoy this movie.  Especially the extended cut, which actually lets the plot make sense.  Like with Man of Steel, I have more to say on this, including diving into the religious underpinnings of the story, that I hope to have done before Justice League hits. ****

Land Before Time – For some reason the Netflix version of this movie has about 10 minutes cut out of its already short runtime, including a line that proved inexplicably memorable for my family.  It feels really jumpy as it is on Netflix right now, especially compared to my memories of it.  Maybe I’ll find the full version some time to see if it holds up. ** (for this version)

Spider-Man Homecoming – read review here.  ***1/2

Baby Driver – read review here. *****

Valerian And the City of a Thousand Planets – read review here. ****1/2

Atomic Blonde – read review here.  ***

The Prestige – This was one of the few Nolan movies that I had never seen all the way through. I had seen most of it, but never from start to finish. It is very good.  *****

Rocky – This is one of my absolute favorite movies. Each time I watch it only reinforces how much much I love this movie.  It is just about perfect. *****

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – I watched this again and I liked even more the second time. This is the tense sort of drama that that non-action scenes of Atomic Blonde was going for, but this movie does it right.  ****1/2

TV

One Day at A Time – This is a very old fashioned show with very forward thinking subject matter. It deals with a lot of progressive issues in a show that is very much styled like a 70’s multi-camera sitcom.  It works. The format is the hardest part for me, it absolutely nails what is both great and terrible about those shows.  I find the very forced and artificial set ups of those shows to be pretty grating and One Day at A Time is no different.  But there is something to be said about the largely episodic nature of this show.  It also does a solid job of foregrounding issues that should be discussed in ways that don’t get in the way of the jokes.  This is an admirable show done in a fashion that I don’t much like.

The Ranch S2 Part 1 – This is still comfortably terrible show, but its jokes about drunk driving got old a long time ago.  Honestly, even the appeal of a cast that I largely like is starting to wear thin with me.  I don’t know if I’ll be back for the next batch of episodes.  I like Sam Elliott and Debra Winger and I like Kutcher and Masterson together, but this show needs better plots and jokes if I am going to stick with it any further.

Castlevania – This has gotten largely positive reviews and I can’t say I agree with them at all. It is competently produced, but it takes the mostly goofy stylings of the Castlevania series and turns it into try-hard edgey nonsense.  I guess that is a little harsh, but it is only four episodes and it doesn’t even start to get good until more than halfway through the third episode. Hopefully the next batch of episodes is more like the second half here.

Trailer Park Boys S11 – I think I am just about done with Trailer Park Boys. I don’t really think the show has gotten worse, I’ve just seen enough. Maybe when the next season hits I’ll feel differently, but as much as I enjoyed parts of this season it really felt like a chore to watch at times.  This is the same show it has always been, for better or worse.

Bosch S1 – I read a few of the books a few months ago and thought I would try out the show. It’s good.  A little slow, but well done. It takes the cop procedural formula and turns it into something like a prestige show.  It stretches cases along the season, but still nails that mystery feeling.  It contains just enough from books I’ve read to throw me off, which is good.  I really want to get to the next couple of seasons, because this was good.

Now Playing July 2017

Finished

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age – Read about it here.

Ever Oasis Read about it here.

New Super Mario Bros. – Read about it here.

Ongoing

The Last Guardian – I barely played it again, but I feel like I am just a moment or two of being completely captured by this game, like I was with Shadow of the Colossus and Ico.  Right now, it is playing out more like Ico.  I love that game, but I fought with it for a few hours before I started to enjoy it and after that I really enjoyed it.  I feel like I am on the cusp of that with this game.  I guess time will tell.

River City Knights of Justice – For some reason, these River City Ransom follow ups keep deviating from that NES classic in strange ways.  Last year’s Tokyo Rumble was more of a take on Renegade, a game that precisely no one likes, instead of RCR, from which the game mostly just took the look. In this Fantasy RPG themed River City game they for some reason took out all the character building stuff.  I sincerely don’t get it.  There is very little sense of character building, something that both RPGs and River City Ransom are known for. The fighting and the setting are still fun, but the game kind of sets out with little help making sense of what is going on.  I really feel like I need a Nintendo Power guide to figure this out.  Most of the game seems to be completing little nonsense missions.  Though I did just fight a big ass dragon, which was cool.  I guess I am saying I like the game, but not as much as I hoped to like it.

Mighty Gunvolt Burst – From beating about two levels of this it looks like the game that everyone wanted Mighty No 9 to be. It is a essentially an 8-bit Mega Man game with the characters replaced with slightly different characters.  I actually kind of liked MN9, but so far this is a better, if smaller, game.  The bosses do take too many hits to kill, but otherwise I am having a lot fun with. With Inticreates keeping the DLC coming, I expect to have a lot of fun with this before I’m done with it.

Shin Megami Tensei Apocalypse – I’ve tried to get back into this, but for some reason it just isn’t clicking with me.  Which is odd, because I have liked just about every SMT game I’ve played before this one.  I’m about ten hours into this, but I am having trouble finding the desire to move forward.  I might drop this back and pick up another of my unfinished 3DS games. I am not giving up on this game forever.

Lufia 2 – I wouldn’t believe me either.

Upcoming

Persona 5 – It fell out of the rotation thanks to Final Fantasy XII, but I will get back to in the coming month.

Super Mario Sunshine – I finally got my Wii hooked back up and ready to go. I’ll be getting on this soon.

Super Mario Galaxy – As soon as I am done with Sunshine it is on to what I remember as being one of the greatest games of all time, though I haven’t played since shortly after its release.

Atomic Blonde Review

Atomic Blonde is directed by half of the directorial pair behind the original John Wick. Chad Stahelski continued with this spring’s excellent John Wick 2.  David Leitch moved on to Atomic Blonde, a film that in trailers seemed to share plenty of DNA with John Wick. Those trailers were somewhat misleading.  The action in Atomic Blonde has the same impact as that new king of action movies.  Too bad the rest of the movie isn’t of the same quality.  Atomic Blonde has plenty to offer, but its plot is convoluted to the point of incoherence.

The action is good, even great. What there is of it.  There are two real action scenes, as well as a few smaller bits.  Those parts a uniformly great, especially an extended fight in a stairwell that is among the best I’ve ever seen.  Charlize Theron, who stars as British spy Lorraine Broughton, is perfect doing her stunts and generally kicking ass.  Not that that is a surprise after seeing her in Mad Max Fury Road.  Every time that she is forced to fight, the movie kicks it up a notch.

The plot, though, is a real problem. In brief, is that Broughton is sent to Berlin by MI6 to track down a list of double agents that a defector gave a since murdered agent.  She teams with the British man on the ground, played by a James McAvoy who appears to be having a wonderful time, and a French agent to track down both the defector and the list.  This is Berlin of the 80’s, just before the wall fell.  That informs the style and the music of the film, but not much else.  It is set in the Cold War and that is all that you need to know. There are double and triple crosses as things play out, but they don’t really land.  It seems to want to be something like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy but never gets anywhere close to that level of tension or paranoia.  It is just a muddle that for all the actors are trying to make it work just makes it a challenge to get from action scene to action scene.

That music is a point of contention. The soundtrack would make an excellent 80’s mixtape, but it tends to be pretty on the nose, with the most obvious songs used in the most obvious of places.  It is more Suicide Squad than Guardians of the Galaxy or Baby Driver when it comes to the music. That being said, the relentless 80’sness of it really makes the setting pop. And the music is mostly really great.

There is a lot to like in Atomic Blonde.  Theron is great, and Lorraine Broughton could be an interesting character to see the further adventures of.  And again, it can’t be overstated how excellent the action is, though there could certainly be more it.  This is a movie that really could have been helped by the relative simplicity of something like John Wick.  The plot tries for complexity and lands in confusion; detracting from all the things that movie does well.  It ends up caught in a no man’s land between John Wick and John LeCarre.  Go see it, you might love it, but it pales in comparison to John Wick Chapter 2.

***