Battle of the Sexes

I don’t know that I expected to like Battle of the Sexes more than I did, but I certainly hoped I would. It is okay, but I thought maybe it could be really good.  Battle of the Sexes is about the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, but it is also about Billie Jean’s personal life, the founding of what would become the WTA and a little about Bobby Riggs. These are all worthwhile stories, but the movie spreads itself a little thin trying to tell all of them and ends up not really telling them all that well.

The Bobby Riggs part of the movie is pretty stunted.  Steve Carell does a great job, playing a fading gambling addict who is just trying to maintain some relevance in a world that is leaving him behind.  There is something irrepressibly comical about him, both when he is being disgustingly sexist and when he is playing games in the living room with his son.  While he is a player in this story, this movie is not his story and it probably shouldn’t be.  But the movie gives just enough of a look into him to leave you wanting more, in a bad way.  After that scene of him playing with his son, we don’t see that son again.  We do meet another, older son who gets a little bit of a story, but he never really amounts to anything as a character.

The movie opens with Billie Jean and Gladys Heldman arranging a boycott of a tennis tournament that pays the male winners 12 times what the female winners get.  They, along with a handful of other women player’s, start what in a few years would become the WTA.  That in itself is likely enough to sustain a movie, but it just sort of happens over the first twenty minutes or so of this movie.  It opens a lot of interesting avenues and leaves them completely unexplored.

The main thrust of the movie, before the central tennis match actually starts to happen, is Billie Jean’s unexpected romance with her hairdresser. It is very unexpected because she is happily married.  That gets the bulk of the movie’s time and is a story worth telling. But unless I am misreading, it is also the subplot that is least on theme. Her husband is possibly the only male figure in this movie that isn’t awful.  He is supportive of King and his interactions with Marilyn, her lover, are more about warning her off to prevent her from disrupting King’s focus, noting that for their mutual love tennis comes first. It other than giving King something else to worry about, it doesn’t really play into the match from which this movie gets its name.

Battle of the Sexes is definitely worth seeing. Emma Stone is excellent as King and Carell is good as Riggs.  The movie is just overwhelmingly pleasant.  It is fun to watch, even as the issues it deals with remain issues 40 years later.  But this movie feels a little like a missed opportunity, like it was close to being just a little bit better and truly memorable.

***1/2

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What I Read September 2017

I only finished one book in September, which is looking more and more like the status quo going forward.  This one, and the one I’ve finished so far in October, is a reread.

The Curse of Chalion

Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ve read this several times and it remains one of my favorites.  It is just about the perfect one volume fantasy story. It creates a world that I wouldn’t mind spending more time in, but it tells a complete and thoughtful story within this one book.  I don’t really have anything new to say about it.  It is a very enjoyable and comforting read.  That is why I turned to it for a quick read when I didn’t really have time to do anything else.

Father Brown Mysteries

GK Chesterton

I didn’t complete this, but I did read the first three or four stories on this complete collection, enough to get an idea of what these stories entail.  I am going to keep reading this and will write about it fully when I finish the whole thing.  So far I’ve found them very enjoyable.

Vision Vol. 2

Tom King & Gabriel Walta

Tom King is still fairly new to comics, which is startling to think about considering how great Omega Men, Sheriff of Babylon and now The Vision are.  (That is to say nothing of his excellent work on Batman and Grayson)  He has also had the good fortune to have worked with some excellent artists, and Walta is no exception. I am not really competent to describe art, other than to say that Walta’s work here is really good, more grounded than most superhero art which is perfectly suited to the very human tragedy of this story. The Vision tells a somewhat heartbreaking story of a superhero watching his life and family disintegrate. It plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy; the end result was inevitable but you can’t help but wishing things could turn out differently. It is hard to discuss without spoiling completely. It is great.

Persona 5

I don’t feel like I’m being fair to Persona 5.  It is a great game.  In terms of mechanics and aesthetics there is nothing it doesn’t do better than its predecessors, which should be expected with nearly a decade between releases.  But my thought immediately after finishing it was that it was no Persona 4. What I’ve been forced to realize over the two months it took me to play this game is that that realization is as much about me as it is about the game itself.

Persona 5 is much like the previous two entries in the series.  It follows the same structure with mostly the same battle system.  It isn’t identical, P5 adds demon negotiation and some different damage types, but the bones are the same.  You still try to hit weaknesses to get extra turns.  The best new addition to the battle system is the baton pass, which allows you to pass the turn to another party member after you down an enemy.  That lets the player spread attacks around, adding another layer of strategy on an already robust battle system.  The Shin Megami Tensei super-series got that battle system mostly right as far back as 2004’s SMT: Nocturne.  The tweaks we got with Persona 5 are a small evolution, not a great shaking of the foundations. But when the system is as good as this one is there is no real problem with sticking with what works. Final Fantasy has got a lot of good miles out of that ATB.

The game also keeps the calendar based structure.  You play a year in the life of a Japanese high schooler, making friends and solving a supernatural mystery.  Each day has a rhythm and a purpose.  There are confidants, the new name for S. Link where the protagonist builds his relationships with the other party members, as well as a handful of classmates and acquaintances. While the main story goes on, that is how you get each character’s individual story.  It is all mostly like the previous two games in the series.

Though I still liked it this time, Persona 5 did not grab me like 3 and especially 4 did.  I don’t think that is on the game.  The battle system is definitely improved.  There are just generally a lot of little fixes that makes it a smoother experience.  While I don’t think the localization was quite as impressive this time as Atlus’s work has been in the past, otherwise it was a better game, at least mechanically.  I think it flails a little story wise, but only because its ambition is so much greater than Persona 4’s.  In that game, the party was solving a local murder mystery.  The body count rose, but it was very limited in scope. Persona 5 has the cast trying to reform all of society.  Their goals and scope are so much greater that it is hardly a surprise that it starts to break down a little at its edges.

I just didn’t connect with the cast, at least not until past the midway point, and in a game that is as much about the story as this one, not connecting with the cast makes it hard to connect with the game Was that because they are not as strong of characters as the gang from Persona 4? I would say they are not, but I think the reason I didn’t connect with them is that when Persona 4 game out, I was in my early 20s and just a few years removed from high school and still in college.  The tribulations of these high school students were relatable and felt real to me.  Now I am in my early 30s and I just don’t find these high schoolers relatable.  I was less inclined to like them, and the game had to work that much harder to get me on board.

There is one thing that I think Persona 4 absolutely did better, which was to make the characters really seem like friends.  Even without the supernatural goings on, most of that cast would have been friends anyway.  Maybe not hiding pop star Rise or famous detective Naoto, but the rest seem likely.  Throughout the game I got the impression that these characters liked each other and would hang out as friends anyway.  Other than Ryuji and the protagonist, I didn’t get the feeling that Persona 5’s cast particularly cared for each other.  They seemed pretty disconnected from each other.

Still, I really enjoyed the game, it just isn’t a game that will come to mind when I think of my favorites like Persona 4 does.  Realizing that it never could is the hardest part to swallow.  I still want experiences like Persona 4 or Lunar 2 or the like, but I fear that even were I to find them I wouldn’t be able to appreciate them. Maybe that is a good thing, why should I like the same things at 20 that I like at 30. Or maybe I’m overreacting. Persona 5 was a lot of fun and I liked it.  Maybe the previous game in the series was just exceptional and this one was merely really good.

Metroid Samus Returns

This should feel bigger.  Metroid had been gone a long time. From 2007’s Metroid Prime 3, all we saw from the series was the widely disliked (I only played the first hour or so before my Wii quit reading the disc and I’ve just never found my way back to it) Metroid: Other M in 2010 and last year’s ignored spin-off Federation Force.  That is essentially one real Metroid game, since Federation Force is a Samus-less spin-off, in a decade and that was easily the least liked game in the series.  Metroid: Samus Returns should feel like a bigger deal. It is a remake instead of an entirely new game, but it is a pretty extensive remake.  There are a few critical flaws, but for the most part this is the Metroid game that most people say they want.

If you are familiar with the series, not a lot of Samus Returns come as a surprise.  Samus sets down on a big empty planet and starts exploring. This time her mission is to eliminate all the Metroids on the planet, like a space exterminator.  You collect power ups and ammo or health expansions as you freely explore the landscape.  It is a metroidvania game.  For the most part, it is a really solid one.

The biggest problem I had with the game is its biggest new feature: the combat mechanics.  Samus Returns adds a counter system to its fighting and it is the worst.  Enemies charge and the player must counter and stun them, which makes them vulnerable.  This turns early game encounters with just about every enemy into waiting for it to charge, countering and then shooting.  It slows the pace to a crawl any time you encounter enemies.  Eventually your firepower increases enough that it is not necessary, but by that point the frustration is great.  The idea works in boss battles, though it mostly unlocks essentially QTEs where you can deal big damage.  It is just a bad mechanic that doesn’t really fit into the game.  Otherwise, Samus Returns is about as good a game as could be made out of the bones of the Gameboy original.

One thing I’ve always found underrated about the early Metroid games is how they actually tell a continuing story.  Most games, of the era and even now, do not do this well.  Mario is the same thing over and again, which is perfectly fine.  Resident Evil’s between game changes make no sense.  Final Fantasy changes its setting every game.  Metroid, Metroid II and Super Metroid tell one continuing tale.  In Metroid, Samus faces down the Space Pirates and encounters the metroids they were experimenting one.  After defeating the Space Pirates there, her next mission takes her to the metroid’s home planet to exterminate them, which leaves on surviving baby metroid, which she leaves at a research station.  That station is attacked by the Space Pirates and Samus is again called up to stop them.  Later games try to fit in between these games and are inessential.  Maybe Fusion fits better as an actual sequel than I’ve given it credit for, but three tell a complete story.

I didn’t love Samus Returns.  Those combat problems turned the early going into a slog before things finally opened up.  But I liked it well enough and I a damn glad to have Metroid back.  Hopefully next year’s Metroid Prime 4 is at least this good.

Now Playing September 2017

Beaten

Persona 5 – post coming soon

Metroid: Samus Returns – post coming soon, probably.  I don’t know how much I have to say.  This is pretty good.  I think the counter system is really fiddly and fighting in general in this game is tedious, but exploring alien worlds never gets old.

Mighty Gunvolt Burst –

I kind of bounced over to this as I finished Metroid and blew through the parts I had left, which was most of the game, in two nights.  This is the game that I think people wanted Mighty No 9 to be.  It is a very solidly made Mega Man clone.  It is also nothing more than a Mega Man clone. It does have the somewhat interesting customizable weapons, but the mechanics of it seem to exist only to force players to continually replay levels.  That isn’t really a bad thing, but it makes for some front loaded difficulty.  But other than that one wrinkle, it is just Mega Man.  Again, that really isn’t a bad thing; the NES Mega Man games are all excellent.  But I felt that Mighty No 9, flaws aside, was trying to be something a little more.  Just a little.  It was an evolution of Mega Man, while Mighty Gunvolt Burst is a bit of a reversion.  That doesn’t change the fact that Burst is a more enjoyable game to play.  It is well worth the price of admission.

 

 

Ongoing

The Last Guardian – I played this for about 10 minutes. I have nothing to say yet, but I expect to finish it before too long.

Legend of Legacy

This is a blip, but the announcement that The Alliance Alive would be making it stateside prompted me to allow myself to be convinced to give this another go. I abandoned it two years ago because the game is inscrutable.  It is still inscrutable.  Level ups happen at random.  Skills are learned at random. It is all random.  The game goes out of its way to not tell how things work. I might stick it out, see if at some point it clicks, but so far it is just a neat experiment in negative space bullshit; that instead of filling a game with bullshit, it creates bullshit by absence of anything else.  At least it looks and sounds nice.

Upcoming

Yakuza 0 – I promised my brother I would get through The Last Guardian as fast as possible, so I started that back up after finishing Persona 5.  As soon as it is done, this goes back in.

Terranigma – I didn’t start this in September.  Honestly, other than spending one weekend getting through the rest of Persona 5 and about half an hour before bed each night playing Metroid I barely played any games.  I’ve got a fall break coming in October and will likely have some time to get to a game or two, with Terranigma near the top of my list.

Etrian Odyssey V – Its coming.  The demo was great, every preceding game was great. This will likely be my obsession for the rest of the year.

Lady Layton – I hope I can beat this in the 10 or so days between its release and EO5.  I’ve never not got right on a Layton game, this will be the same. But I really don’t have the time these days.

What I Watched September 2017

Movies

Little Evil – A fun little horror comedy from the guy behind Tucker and Dale vs Evil, another fun little horror comedy. This one has Adam Scott as the stepfather of the Anti-Christ.  It is no Shaun of the Dead, but it is reasonably enjoyable. ***1/1

#realityhigh – This is Mean Girls without the smarts and with a lot more YouTube.  I am not the target audience for this movie, so I don’t feel I can judge it too harshly.  Maybe some of this crap is relatable to kids.  But I have seen movies do this same thing and do it much better.  **

Gangs of New York – There is a lot going on here. I don’t think it is Scorsese’s best, but there is a lot of to like. It is a crazy expansive look at New York in the middle of the 19th century that is largely well acted and plotted. ****1/2

My Man Godfrey – This is a pretty excellent entry in one of my favorite lost genres, the screwball comedy. A man living in a dump is hired by an insane rich family to be their butler.  Except the man, Godfrey, is not just a homeless man but secretly very rich and is working as a butler for kicks, I guess.  It is a lot of fun. *****

Kingsman The Golden Circle – read review here. *

Enter the Warriors Gate – This is The Forbidden Kingdom, not a particularly great movie, without Jackie Chan or Jet Li, that movies two big draws.  It isn’t the worst, but it is far from being actually good.  **

Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind – This isn’t my favorite Ghibli movie, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to see it on the big screen.  It plays.  It is the prototypical Miyazaki movie; it has all the elements that his movies would become known for, but everything feels stretched just a little bit thin.  Maybe it is just his other movies do parts of this one better than they are done here. For instance, if you just want the aerial action, Castle in the Sky and Porco Rosso are better. Still, this movie is well worth seeing. *****

TV

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – This show is hilarious and fun, but it can also be hard to watch.  The main character continually makes wrong choice after wrong choice and while it is almost always funny, it is also pretty sad.  This is an excellent show. I love the songs especially.

The Good Place – This show is amazing.  The set-up, a bad person getting wrongly sent to ‘not heaven’ is pretty great.  When the other shoe drops on the premise, it makes everything that came before it even better.

30 Rock – I was going to write this show up again, because it is my go to going to sleep viewing choice and it was leaving Netflix. But then I learned that it was just moving to Hulu and Hulu would only cost me $6 bucks a month and has enough stuff to watch other than 30 Rock to make it worth it to me.  So I still have access to 30 Rock to put me to sleep at night.

American Vandal – This show is a perfect combination of true crime documentaries and stupid high school kids.  A stoner is accused of spray-painting dicks on all of his teacher’s cars.  One kid from the AV club investigates to get to the bottom of who did the dicks.  It is quite the roller coaster ride, with the complete focus on things that are ultimately not that important.  This is really good.

The Tick – The new Tick show is good.  It is still the Tick, though a more serious take on the character.  The older show played the same subjects largely for laughs, this one takes plays them for more drama. And also laughs.  I like the old show better, but I will keep watching this one.

Blade Runner 2049

I am not the biggest fan of the original Blade Runner. I like it just fine, but it always felt standoffish and cold to me. Maybe it is because I am most familiar with the theatrical cut. At least I think that is the cut that I watched occasionally on VHS decades ago.  I have seen at least two different versions of it.  It is stark and moody and beautiful, but I could never connect with it. While Blade Runner 2049 shares a lot of qualities with the original, I didn’t have that problem here.

Blade Runner 2049 eschews ambiguity about whether its protagonists is a replicant, and artificially created person, (I don’t think Deckard is) telling the viewer right at the start that Ryan Gosling’s K is one. After successfully hunting down an older model, he stumbles upon a discovery that has the potential to completely disrupt society. This sets off an investigation that largely plays out like a noir mystery. Trying not to spoil anything, K must deal with his boss with the police, his companion Joi, mysterious CEO Niander Wallace and his associate Luv and finally Deckard from the original movie as he tries to get to the bottom of things.  It is hard to really dig into this movie without spoiling everything. I am not usually a big stickler for spoilers, but this is a mystery.  SO there will be mild spoilers ahead, but I will endeavor to not ruin things outside the basic premise.

It does deal with the idea of what makes us human.  Our protagonist K is a replicant, and he believes he is not a person. He puts up a persona of being cold and emotionless.  A later revelation causes him to question that, and he becomes much more emotional and expressive.  By the end, he has shown his humanity no matter what he learns about his creation.  That is contrasted with Luv, another replicant who never seems to question her birth and purpose. No matter what she does or what she sees, she robotically follows her orders.  Then there is Joi, an AI program designed to tell its owner exactly what they want to hear.  She gives K exactly what he wants; turning his barren apartment into a home and telling him he is special, even giving him another name, Joe.  But is she doing anything more than what her programming tells her to do?  An encounter with another version maybe answers the question, but I don’t think that answer is definitive.  Then there is also the inhumanity of many of the human characters, like [boss] and Wallace, who coldly want to, or do, dispatch with replicants because they do not see them as human. It makes things a little more clear as to what each character is, and then muddies it up with how to look at them.

It is also an utterly gorgeous movie, taking place in a largely ugly setting.  The earth of 2049 is a dying place, with irradiated desert reclaiming Las Vegas and San Diego turned into a giant dump and Los Angeles managing to seem both overcrowded and empty.  The costuming is amazing; there are tons of memorable shots. The music is good, if a little modern blockbuster-y.  It is just a truly well-made film.

I’m not trying to hide the ball here, I loved Blade Runner 2049.  It isn’t a copy of the original; it takes its themes and builds on them.  I think it surpasses the original.  It is a little messy, there are plot threads that don’t really go anywhere and lots of questions left unanswered, but those mostly worked to make the movie feel alive for me.  This world is bigger than just the story of this movie, those story threads are not to be dealt with here.  Not really sequel hooks, just other events that are also happening.  Everything about this movie works for me.

*****