What I Watched August 2017

Movies

The Dark Tower – read review here. **1/2

Opening Night – Topher Grace plays a failed actor working as a stage manager for a musical.  This is all about the struggles backstage as they get ready for opening night.  It is a reasonably well made movie. It is just funny and charming enough to get by during its hour and a half run time.  I like Topher Grace; I like several other members of the cast.  It is fine, but forgettable. ***1/2

Logan Luckyread review here. ****1/2

Naked – A take on Groundhogs Day where a man has to keep reliving his disastrous wedding day until he finally gets things right.  I can’t say I hated it, but it never did enough with its premise.  It wasn’t touching or funny enough to really be worthwhile.   **

The Incredible Jessica James – This is a pretty solid indie comedy/drama starring The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams.  It works.  It is funny and charming.  Definitely worth watching.  ***1/2

What Happened to Monday – This movie isn’t bad.  I liked it.  But it is really disappointing how much it squanders its premise.  It stars Noomi Rapace as seven identical sisters in a world that has a one child rule.  So each sibling is named after the day of the week they get to go outside in the identity of the one child. It is a neat concept, but the movie pretty much immediately starts taking sisters off the board in favor of a fairly standard chase movie. There is just so much unrealized potential here.  When it plays with that premise it is really enjoyable. ***

The Founder – This is the perfect American story, about how if you work hard enough there is nothing you can’t steal.  It’s itself up as a sort of Ray Kroc hagiography, but lets you see the complete emptiness inside of the man.  He cares for no one and nothing other than himself, sparing no regard for the people he destroys along the way. It is just great.  *****

Beautiful Creatures – I watched this to see Alden Ehrenriech after loving him in Hail, Caesar! This is clearly a movie made to capitalize on the success of Twilight and it isn’t the best.  However, it has enough fun performers, like Ehrenriech and Jeremy Irons and Voila Davis and Emmy Rossum, having fun with the movie that it remains watchable. **1/2

TV

Ozark – The show hits the ground running, but it takes a little time to warm up anyway.  Many have compared it to Breaking Bad, but it starts in a much different place, a place where the protagonist, Jason Bateman’s Marty Bird, has already made the decision to work for the bad guys.  Other than the fact that his job is illegal, he remains a mostly forthright guy.  There is trouble with his marriage and he is in no sense of the word a good guy, but it is endlessly entertaining to see his reaction to trouble being to simply admit the truth.  I don’t know how good the show actually is, but I do know that I kept watching until it was over.

Friends from College – This show is miserable.  It has an excellent cast, but they play the least likeable/least funny bunch of ingrates I’ve ever seen in what is supposed to be a comedy.  You can do comedy with unlikeable, terrible people, Always Sunny in Philadelphia has been making hay with for years, but that show doesn’t try to make you care about characters this fundamentally awful.  This show thinks its viewers will care about what happens to these goblins.  It also is only rarely funny.  It is really just the worst.

Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later – I doubt I’ll have the time, but I’d like to write a fuller review of this, or a full review of both season of Wet Hot and the movie. This show is brilliant. It has a great cast and is incredibly funny.  Also Chris Meloni steals the show.

Voltron S3 – This show keeps getting better as it doles out little chunks of goodness.  Knowing that the people behind it have a plan or roadmap for how things will progress makes it easier to go through with the episodes as they come.  Still, this is a lot of fun.  Good action, good character work and some good sci-fi concepts.  I’m not going completely crazy about it, but it maintains a very high quality level throughout.  I just wish they’d release more at a time.

The Get Down Part 2 – I am going to miss this nonsense spectacle of a show.  It is so big and so grand, but also muddled and inconsistent.  It is just too much, which is both likely why it cost so much and got the axe and why I kept watching it despite its flaws. It didn’t quite work, but I’m glad that I got to experience it.

Little Witch Academia – It has been an unfortunately long time since I got into an anime. I just haven’t really attempted to do so, and the few I have checked out haven’t really clicked with me. Also at the risk of enraging purists, I don’t have the time and inclination to read while watching cartoons. Little Witch Academia, a charming mix of Harry Potter and Kiki’s Delivery Service, is pretty entertaining. It isn’t the deepest show out there, but it has some nice animation and is free of the creepiness that tends to infect these sorts of shows.  It is all around a good time and worth checking out on Netflix.

Defenders – Had I written this immediately after seeing it I think I would have been more positive. Now that I have had a week or two to let it settle, I am feeling less charitable. All of the Marvel Netflix shows have shared a problem: they are 13 episodes long, but don’t have 13 episodes worth of story.  Even the best of them (Jessica Jones for my money) feels pretty saggy in the middle.  Defenders is only 8 episodes, which should have done wonders to fix that problem.  Except somehow the show has the same ratio of content to filler as the longer shows.  This is a superhero team up show that doesn’t even start the team up portion until halfway through the series. It isn’t like there is a lot happening in those first few episodes; it takes three full episodes to introduce its four protagonists. I don’t know. There is mild amusement here, but it doesn’t leave any sort of positive impression.

White Gold – This show has its moments, but it is stuck between showing awful people be awful and trying to make them characters.  Mostly it works, there is a lot of humor here, but sometimes it just doesn’t work.

Dear White People – Often powerful, often funny, occasionally a little bit stuck in between. This is not a show that is afraid to be messy, but the message generally shines through. It is really, really good.

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Fall/Winter Movie Preview

September

Unlocked – Noomi Rapace is really good, even if not everything she is in is.  The director, Michael Apted, directed a Bond movie that only I like (The World is Not Enough). Honestly, I’m stretching a little to find stuff in September that seems worth checking out. Sept 1

It – I am not at all interested in this, but it is about as big a movie as September has coming. It looks like it is going to be very much a horror movie, instead of only kind of a horror movie like the original TV mini-series. I’m out.  Doesn’t mean it will be bad, I just don’t watch horror movies. Sept 8

American Assassin – Looks like generic thriller, but I don’t mind those and Michael Keaton goes a long way.  Sept 15

Kingsman The Golden Circle – If everything else was equal, this is a movie I would be excited for. I like a lot of what this looks to be and I like a lot of the people in it. I also hate to give money to anything that has Mark Millar’s fingerprints on it.  I really detest that man’s work.  But this looks like it could be an exception. Action comedies, especially ones about spies, are exactly my wheelhouse.  Sept. 22

American Made – Who knows, but I’ll never outright dismiss a Tom Cruise movie. It looks at least somewhat interesting. Sept 29.

October

Blade Runner 2049 – Here we go. A follow up to a classic, with Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling, directed by the man who directed last year’s Arrival. I am in for this. It looks great.  Oct 6

The Foreigner – I prefer fun Jackie Chan to serious Jackie Chan, but I am not against Chan in a Taken alike.  Plus, he’s playing off of Pierce Brosnan, who is always fun.  This could go either way. Oct 13

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women – This should be interesting at the very least.  The creator of Wonder Woman, or maybe creators, is endlessly fascinating.  If this plays near me I’ll see it.  Oct 13

Geostorm – This seems like a movie that should have crapped up the summer.  It looks appallingly dumb, but there might be entertainment to be found in it any way. Oct 20.

Suburbicon – Coen Brothers written; yay! Clooney directed; shrug.  I haven’t hated either of Clooney’s directorial efforts, but I haven’t loved them either.  This looks good enough to be worth a look.  Oct 27.

November

Thor: Ragnarok – So far this looks like everything great about superhero movies. It looks epic and fun and big in ways that few actually turn out to be.  If it cribs as much from Walt Simonson as it appears to it should be a delight. Nov 3

Murder on the Orient Express – I’ve been on a real Christie kick lately, I could go for an adaptation.  And I generally really enjoy Branagh, both as an actor and a director.  The rest of the cast, assuming Depp is somewhat restrained, looks pretty good as well. Nov 10

Justice League – I might be the last one on this train, seeing as I love Batman v Superman, (I gave it a middling review when it came out, then liked the “Ultimate Cut” a lot more and each time I’ve seen it since I’ve liked it more. I am ready to call it love) but I am ready for the next stop. Nov 17

Coco – I didn’t see Cars 3, but I am not missing 2 Pixar movies in one year.  I’ll be there for this. Nov 22

December

The Shape of Water – Its Guillermo Del Toro, I am going to see it.  I love most of his movies. This is some sort of fantasy romance between a woman and a fishman.  It sounds very Del Toro and very good. Dec 18

Star Wars The Last Jedi – If anything, I am more excited for this than I was for The Force Awakens.  This looks so amazing. Dec 15

Jumanji – This will almost certainly be bad, but there is a near infinite number of bad movies I’ll watch The Rock in.  At least the conceit is amusing, though I hope they do something more interesting than the trailer showed with it.  Dec 20

I know there are movies that I should be excited for that I’m not.  You know, the actually good movies hidden amongst the rancid Oscar bait and summer leftovers, but I am having trouble really finding much to be excited for this fall.  Of course, at this time last year I hadn’t even heard of La La Land, so what do I know?  I know Netflix has stuff coming as well, but they tend to cagey with release dates more than a few weeks out. Tell me of anything I missed, unless it is a horror movie because then I simply ignored it.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

It is not often that a movie repulses me quite like Kingsman: The Golden Circle did.  It is a nasty, callow, mean-spirited, empty film that tries to play itself off as a gleeful romp despite being utterly devoid of anything that could cause glee.  Even so, I would feel more charitable if I could find one thing to point to that it does well to offset its soul destroying vulgarity, but there is nothing here.

The closest to a positive thing I can point to in Kingsman: The Golden Circle is its cast. Even a movie as generally revolting as this can’t completely disguise the charms of actors like Mark Strong, Colin Firth or Channing Tatum.  Even when you toss in a happily sleepwalking Julianne Moore, a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by Jeff Bridges and an altogether bland showing from Halle Berry, the cast makes you really want to root for this movie.  Too bad about the movie itself.

It is mean-spirited, and it shows this right from the start.  After a brief, weightless action sequence which ends with the protagonist Eggsy literally covered in shit, it switches to Moore’s villain Poppy, who has one henchman toss another head first into a meat grinder and then she serves the survivor a hamburger made from his friend.  Of course, this is the villain; we expect them to do awful things.  But the world at large, including our heroes, is no better.  All along I was expecting at least one character to repudiate the vileness that permeates nearly every character’s actions, but instead they continually double down on it.  Eggsy attempts to plant a tracker on one of the villain’s girlfriends is not dissimilar to many of Bond’s seductions, though for Bond the mission is usually information and the sex is just a bonus; this is a calculated plot for the protagonist to paw at a woman’s crotch.  Maybe some of it is the usual Bond spy stuff taken to what is intended to be a humorous extreme, but all it ends up doing is feeling gross.

The action is also a disappointment.  There is one good sequence, but even that one is heavy on the CGI. The movie tries to go over the top, but it just makes everything feel hollow and empty.  There is a car chase that is supposed to be the big opener, but Baby Driver came out just a few months ago, I know what a good car chase looks like.  Or hell, I could look at Mission Impossible Rogue Nation or The Man from UNCLE, all of which feature better car chases than that.  The action in the gunfights is clear, but there is no weight to anything. It just happens.

I should have known better than to go see this.  It is based on a Mark Millar property, if not on an actual story he wrote, and I know how much I detest his writing. But some people really talking up the first, which I skipped, and a dearth of other options led me to seeing Kingsman 2.  This movie is permeated with Millar’s brand of immature, edgy stupidity.  There is nothing here to recommend.

*

Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age

I intended to write about Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age when I was about halfway through it, but that didn’t happen.  Instead, the game completely took control of me in a way that few games do.  It is very similar to the weeks I spent enthralled by Breath of the Wild earlier this year. That doesn’t happen to me often, for it to happen twice in the same year is unusual.

 

Especially since I have already played Final Fantasy XII. It got me like this all the way back when it first came out.  I went to a midnight launch of the game at a Gamestop and played it pretty much nonstop until I beat it.  This remaster is largely the same game; very little of the content is changed.  The biggest changes are in the license board character growth system, since The Zodiac Age is based on the International special edition of the game that introduced job specific license boards instead of one identical one.  It’s a change I feared going in, thinking that it would upset the game balance by limiting the characters. While it does limit them, it also makes for more specialization. They are better at the few things they can do.  It takes for some adjusting, but all it really takes it knowing what abilities you have at your disposal.

 

Some of the game’s flaws are still there.  A lot of abilities are hidden in randomly spawning chests in dungeons.  That makes it really hard to make full use of your abilities when the best ones are hidden three quarters of the way through the game.  Some really great strategies are just impossible until you have the right skills, which even if you unlock them on the board you might never have.  I don’t know why they did it that way, but it is a very extent annoyance.

Still, I burned through The Zodiac Age in about a week of play.  In my head, FFXII turned into a slog about halfway through and dragged on way too long, like a lot of PS2 games did.  I did not find that to be the case this time.  I cleared the game in about 40 hours, which is about how long I like JRPGs to take.  I don’t mind the occasional 80 hour super-epic, but I prefer the Chrono Triggerian focused 25 experience.  FFXII fits right in between the two of them.  It is just about perfect.

The story does take a back seat after an action packed opening, but the world it task the player with exploring is the best.  I stopped caring that my task got kind of lost, because I was having too much fun exploring the caves and plains and beaches of Ivalice. There is just so much there, enough to keep anyone busy for at least as long again as playing through the story takes.  The world is the star of this game.

Honestly, though, I am a big fan of the story of this game as well.  It has one of my favorite casts.  Basch, Balthier and Ashe are all great characters.  A lot of people really don’t like Vaan and Penelo, but I find them inordinately charming.  Vaan positioning as the protagonist, even though he is not even close to the driving figure of the story, can be annoying, but the character himself is a lot fun.  His youthful exuberance is the perfect antidote to the often closed and jaded characters like Basch.  It takes more than a few cues from Star Wars, but Vaan is not the Luke of this story, he’s more like the R2D2.  A vital part of the team, but not really a driving force of plot. (the others match like this Balthier = Han, Fran = Chewie, Basch = Luke/Obi Wan, Ashe = Leia and Penelo = C-3PO) It gets a little lost in the middle, mostly because the story is split by vast stretches of land, it honestly holds together a lot better than I remembered.

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is FFXII just like you remember it, much in the same way that the 3DS remakes of the N64 Zeldas are just like you remember them.  They are not as the game’s actually were, but they are close and everything that is different just removes annoyances to let you get at the great game that has always been underneath.  This remake is the rose tinted version of the game, minus a bunch of small complaints that didn’t even occur to players at the time.  I put up my Final Fantasy rankings a month or so ago and I stand by XII’s placement on the list. This game is one of the greats.

What I Read August 2017

Two more Agatha Christie’s for August and I expect that this will be the pace for most of the next couple of years.  All I do for class is read; it makes it hard to find the drive to read for fun.  Still, I can’t imagine I stop reading entirely.

Cat Among the Pigeons

Agatha Christie

A solid Poirot story that reads more like a Marple story.  By that I mean that Poirot doesn’t show up until near the end of the story and mostly just solves the mystery instead of doing any investigating.  This involves intrigue and murder at a girl’s school, as well as Middle Eastern royalty.  A Middle East King, facing revolution, entrusts some gems to a British friend, who hides them among his visiting sister and her daughter’s possessions. When she gets back to school, things take a murderous turn

It works. The two halves don’t quite fit together, and part of the eventual solution seemed come out of nowhere.  I really prefer when the detective is a more active part of the story. The mystery here is fine, but the solving doesn’t quite live up to it.  It is kind of great how the Christie tells you exactly what is going on, yet it is still hard to pinpoint the villain. This one is not a favorite, but it is solid enough.

Passenger to Frankfurt

Agatha Christie

I’ve read some Christie that I thought was not great or was actually rather weak, but until this book I don’t think I’d encountered any of her books that I would call downright bad.  Passenger to Frankfurt, though, is downright bad.  It is strangely formless and scattered, with a lot of grand, if maybe poorly considered, ideas strewn about a plot that makes even the most convoluted and stupid Bond movies look downright intelligible.

Ostensibly, Passenger to Frankfurt is about Stafford Nye, a British foreign official who gets caught up in some international intrigue and espionage.  For the first half that is exactly what happens.  He meets a mysterious woman, he tracks her down again and learns of an important mission, and they head off to exotic locals to prevent disaster.  I guess, anyway.  A little past the midpoint, Nye all but disappears from the book as it becomes a much more general look at a plot to cause anarchy and overthrow Western governments.  There are threads about fake sons of Hitler and lobotomizing super drugs. It is weird as hell and not especially coherent. It is a big miss.

Now Playing August 2017

Beaten

Lufia 2: The Fortress of Doom – I didn’t beat it, but I am done with it. I am sorry, I am going write up my experiences with the first half or so of the game.  One day I will get back to this, like I intend to go back to the original Lufia and several other SNES rpgs.  It just isn’t clicking with me right now and I don’t feel like dragging my 25 SNES project out any longer.  I will try to play Terranigma sometime in the next month or so, but my free time is severely constrained.

Ongoing

Persona 5

I started this up right after its release, but I really only got invested in it in the last few weeks. Right now, I don’t like it as much as I liked Persona 3, let alone Persona 4.  It isn’t bad, but it just isn’t captivating me the same way either of those two games did. That is likely as much on me as anything in the game.  Persona 4 came out nearly a decade ago.  I was a different person then, in a different stage of my life.  I had the time to spent full days doing nothing but playing those games, now I really don’t. I am also less investing in the travails of high schoolers.  Ten years ago I was only a few years out of high school, those problems and considerations were much more relatable.  I don’t think the game should change, those high schoolers should have games that speak to them like Persona 4 spoke to me.  It just means that I connect with it a little less now.  At least the gameplay is still great.

Chrono Trigger – I’ve got a big post coming about this game, but recently I had the strong desire to replay one of my all time favorites. CT is still great.  No matter how many times I play it, I always want to play it again.  This might be my absolute favorite.

Sword Coast Legends – It was cheap on PSN and I still have affection for the old Infinity Engine games.  I beat the prologue.  There are problems, like reading tiny dialogue on the TV and ‘reading’ the screen in general because it is clearly designed for the PC with the players face inches instead of feet from the screen, or its extensive loading times, but I am still getting some enjoyment out of it. Enough to be worth the less than $5 I payed for it.

Upcoming

Yakuza 0/Kiwami – One of these is up next once I finish with or wander away from Persona 5.  They are starting to stack up on me now that Sega is actually committed to localizing them.  I will get to them, while I am considering spending a significant portion of my gaming budget on the special edition of Yakuza 6.  I love this series.

Monster Hunter Stories – It’s coming from Amazon. I might actually loan it to my brother while I play the next game on this list and finish Chrono Trigger.

Metroid: Samus Returns – Also coming from Amazon. This is the only Metroid game I haven’t beaten.

Terranigma – Now that I am done with Lufia 2 for the foreseeable future, I am eager to finally get to this last game on my list.  I will at least start in September.

Mario Games – I am having problems with my Wii and don’t have access to my WiiU, which means all the remaining games aside from 3D Land and New Super Mario Bros 2 are currently inaccessible to me. I will get back to this, but it could be a little while.  I will certainly not finish before Super Mario Odyssey comes out, which I will not get to play because I still don’t own a Switch.  But I do intend to finish this series.

Lucky Logan Review

I’m not a big Steven Soderbergh fan. Not that I don’t like his movies, only that I’ve only seen the Ocean’s trilogy and those, while enjoyable and essentially perfectly crafted, didn’t leave that big of an impression on me. Logan Lucky uses a similar formula, but replaces Ocean’s Vegas glitz with West Virginia grit. It works, with strong performances all around and funny moments from start to finish.

Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan; a divorced father who loses his job thanks to an old football injury that causes a liability issue at the same time he finds out his ex is taking their daughter and moving.  He needs money.  So he concocts a plan with his siblings, the one armed Clyde (Adam Driver) and hairdresser Mellie (Riley Keough), to rob a race track.  They recruit another group of siblings, the Bang brothers, to help them.  It is a heist movie, with the characters going through the usual hurdles of a heist movie, like needing to appear to be one place when they are actually somewhere else, before it all comes together.

It is a joy to watch even these largely kind of stupid characters be good at their jobs.  The Logan brothers are especially competent, while Joe Bang, played by a Daniel Craig who appears to be having a blast, MacGyver like knowledge of explosives is delightful.  Soderbergh knows the heist game as well as anybody, and he executes it again here.

I don’t want to explain more of the plot, because the joy is seeing it play out for yourself.  Any plot details, other than the base premise seem to spoil something.  This is a tight movie, with everything working just as it should.  Tatum is the perfect rock for the rest of oddball characters to play off of. He and Driver really manage to feel like brothers, with long standing gripes with each other but no doubt that the two of them always have each other’s backs.

This is the perfect movie to close out a somewhat disappointing summer.  It is just so competent and entertaining.  It isn’t a desperate attempt to set up a franchise or the dying gasp of last decade’s franchise.  Its plot is complex without being convoluted and just so goddamned effortlessly entertaining.

****1/2