What I Read December 2018

I had the back half of the month free, and I managed to finish three books. I have the better part of next month free as well, and should be at least able to match that.

The Accursed

Joyce Carol Oates

Before reading this I was largely familiar with Oates for some short stories I read back in college. This is something significantly more substantial. It is a gothic novel of sorts, cataloging supernatural events at Princeton during the early 20th century. It combines a lot of things I like, like supernatural stories, that specific time period and meta-fictional elements. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

As much as it appeals to me, the structure of the book keeps the reader at arms length. The Accursed is written as a history, a collection of primary sources and recreations by the writer that detail the goings on of some kind of panic around Princeton. It allows for an interesting level of fake authenticity and multiple levels of unreliable narrators. It also serves to keep a lot of the characters and emotions at a remove. It is not easy to connect when characters are presented as figures of history and not characters to get to know. The illusion is helped by the addition of real historical figures that would have been in that area at that time, like future President Woodrow Wilson and Jack London. It sells that it is a true account. Then its gets to the supernatural stuff and it quickly becomes apparent that there isn’t quite as many supernatural events as the book’s fictional author tries to sell you. It makes some of the racial connotations of monsters stories exactly the point, with many unexplained events explained quite easily with racism. But there is just enough that is genuinely spooky and magical to keep you reading, trying to pick through the layers of unreliable narrators to find exactly what is “real” and what is not. The books is alternately lyrical and dry, exciting and common. The Accursed is a real treat.

The Plastic Magician

Charlie N Holmberg

I read Holmberg’s Paper Magician trilogy a year or two ago and quite enjoyed it. This follow up was roughly in line with its quality. In the world of these books, people do magic with the one material they are bonded with. In this book, as the title suggests, the protagonist is learning to do magic with plastic with the newest magic material. I hope this isn’t a one off, because this is a fun continuation of from the Paper Magician, and I’d like to see more.

Alvie is an interesting character. She moves from America to London to study. She is an inventor, eager to push the envelope of what is possible with magic and tends to get lost in her work. She has trouble dealing with the fierce, and dangerous, rivalry that her mentor is stuck in. The conflict ends up being almost completely personal. Alvie and her mentor have an invention and a rival is out to steal it. The stakes get raised, but the central conflict is closer to a mystery than an epic. This is just a fun, solid read.

Storm Glass

Jeff Wheeler

This book is a lot of interesting set up for not a lot of story. I realize that it is the first book in a series that is five or so books long, so some of that is to be expected, but this book really feels like a lot of set up. The world of this book is interesting. It is a world of extreme inequality, with rich people hoarding knowledge and wealth while living on floating islands, while the poor people are stuck on the surface. There is some sort of magic, or maybe just knowledge, called the Mysteries, used to keep people from accessing the knowledge.

Storm Glass follows two young woman protagonists. The first is Cettie, a young orphan girl from the slums who is taken in by a rich family. The other is the a member of the royal family who is struggling with her parent’s apparent disinterest in her. Cettie takes the lead in this book. She is struggling to find a place to fit in, her new family is partly excited for her addition and partly seeing her as a nuisance. Especially because the extremely image conscious society. Her sections of the book are split between her struggles with a housekeeper that doesn’t believe she is fit to be a part of the family and her growing discovery of her powers. Meanwhile the princess gets inadvertently caught in a power struggle with her father, who sees her as a rival heir to the throne.

Honestly, the book’s blunt theming didn’t work for me because that is about all there was. There aren’t really any surprises. Things play out almost exactly as you expect them to, people are pretty much exactly who they appear to be. There is enough interesting here for me to give it another book to see if it can actually make the world work in a story, but I didn’t really enjoy this.

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Zack and Wiki

I’m not sure if I’ve written about this before, but before I started this blog, I had a plan to have one hundred posts ready to go before I started. I made a list of everything I wanted to cover, all of the movies, TV shows, comics and games that I wanted to write about. At least, the list of things I wanted to cover in early 2010. I didn’t complete that list, because I realized that if I tried to stick to my hundred articles I would never start posting. So I put the list away and just wrote about what interested me whenever I had the time. Recently, I found my list of proposed articles. It was kind of surprising, seeing what I thought I wanted to write about a decade ago and can’t understand why. (I guess I thought I had something to say about Chuck and According to Jim? I’m not sure what my intended angle was) It also is filled with things I truly wanted to write about and have never gotten around to do so. So I am going to make an effort to cover the remaining items on the list, even the odd ones if I can find something to say about them. (I feel like I’ve written this post before, but I’m not sure I posted it.)

I am starting with one of the games on my list, the only one that really hasn’t stood the the test of time: Zack & Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros Treasure. I know why this game was on my list. Even in 2010 this game was already sinking into obscurity. That felt wrong to me; I was annoyed that this charming, solid adventure was being washed away as another piece of Wii shovelware. I fired it up just after Christmas and even a more than a decade later, it remains charming. There are some flaws, but for the most part Zack & Wiki remains an enjoyable way to spend six to eight hours.

Zack & Wiki is essentially a point and click adventure game. Using the wii remote as a pointer, the player moves Zack around the stages and solves puzzles. Zack himself is little more than a blank avatar, but Wiki, his flying metallic monkey friend, has several skills. By shaking the wii-remote Zack shakes Wiki like a bell. This draws attention from big enemies. It also turns most enemies into items that can be used around the map. Frogs turn into bombs, pirate goons turn into blocks that can be moved around, snakes can be turned into a grapper to get hard to reach items. Most of the puzzles are built around that ability. There are some keys and levers and the like, but mostly it comes down to finding enemies, turning them into items and using them where appropriate. The hardest part of the game is that you have to do things in the proper order, frequently without being able to tell what the proper order is before you do things.

That is where the big flaw with this game comes in. This is a game the requires experimentation, but the scoring system punishes experimentation. You can also get stuck, where the only option is to give up and start over, even if you only need to move back one step or two. Or if you are at the end of an hour long stage. It would take a very small change to make for a significantly smoother experience.

Graphically, it seems to take a lot of its inspiration from Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. It has that same sort of cel-shaded cartoon look. The games look remarkable similar, which is far from a bad thing, though it is worth noting that this game probably looks slightly worse than Wind Waker and came out nearly a half a decade after that game. The look of the game is a draw, even though it creates some confusion. It looks like a kids cartoon, and the largely charming antics of the Calvin & Hobbes-esque titular duo reinforce that kiddy appeal. But the game is a fairly difficult puzzler. This is not a game that kids will likely have a lot of success.

Still, the cast is undeniably charming. Zack with his oversized pirate hat and generally troublemaking ways. The rest of the crew of the Sea Rabbits, who are more than a little reminiscent of Tetra’s crew from Wind Waker, are largely amusing. Then there are the villains, from the Rose Rock pirates, a group of incompetent goons and their mean anime girl leader Captain Rose. Each area of the game has some obstacles, from a group of furry goblins to the cutest possible baby dragon. The look of the game is simply charming. There is a story, but there isn’t a lot there.

In a lot of ways, Zack & Wiki is about the perfect Wii game. It is a game that would be easy to move off the system, but since much of the puzzle solving is done with motion controls a lot of the appeal would be left behind. It feels like it should have been the start of long running series, but sales prevented that. I am glad I found the excuse to play it again.

Top 10 TV Shows 2018

Yes, another Top 10 list. Let’s get to it.

Honorable Mentions – I really like the thriller Collateral, but only barely remembered it until I started looking at things. Netflix had some good stuff, like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Santa Clarita Diet and Trollhunters, that I considered for this list. And I found Snatch on Crackle to be a lot of fun, though I appear to be the only person who is aware of it.

10. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt/Great News – Both of these shows are the children of 30 Rock. Kimmy Schmidt had the best episode, in Party Monster: Scratching the Surface, but I think Great News was the slightly better show by the end of the respective seasons this year.

9. Bob’s Burgers – Bob’s Burgers is always good and deserves recognition. I don’t exactly remember which episodes hit in 2018, but even the worst of Bob’s Burgers is better than anything else I watched this year.

8. Howard’s End – A real solid adaptation of the novel. I don’t know how to describe it as other than well made. It is simply a well produced, well acted, well written show. I enjoyed every minute of it.

7. GLOW – Less set up than the first season, more fun. Lot’s of standout performances and a few standout episodes. Alison Brie is a national treasure.

6. Maniac – It hits that perfect kind of dirty sci-fi where it is clearly the future, but it is just as crappy and broken as things are now. Then it goes into some pretty wild “dream” sequences that all adopt the visual language of another kind of story. I’m not certain it holds together, but watching it was an amazing experience.

5. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow – This show has figured out what it is. It took it a full season, but since then it has just gotten more and more confident. Season 3 was an out and out delight. It has strong characters and knows just how silly it can be so long as it stays true to those characters. There isn’t a more fun show on television.

4. Dear White People – It is less focused than the first season, but it is also more expansive and playful. It is just so good and so well considered.

3. Black Lightning – I am a fan of DC’s shows on the CW, but Black Lightning is in a class of it own. The first season told a compelling story of a family that just so happened to feature the occasional fight between people with superpowers.

2. The Good Place – Just when you think you have this show figured out, it changes into something else. The fact that it keeps managing to turn philosophy lessons into comic highlights never ceases to amaze me.

1. American Vandal – This show has unfortunately been cancelled, but both seasons of American Vandal are amazing. They are funny, but they are also have heart, finding humor in the problems faced by young people without belittling them.

What I Watched December 2018

Movies

Creed II — read review here. ***1/2

The Kindergarten Teacher — A disturbing look at a sort of obsession. A kindergarten teacher finds what she thinks is a poet prodigy in her class, but disagrees with how to deal with him with the kids parents. Her actions get more and more extreme. I mostly just found it to be a drag. **

The Princess Switch–This movie is nonsense. It isn’t good by the standards of Hallmark holiday movies. That being said, I had a good time, even if kind of ironically. **1/2

The Christmas Prince 2 — Did I just put on some of Netflix’s crappy Christmas movies in the background while I did other things? Yes. Do I remember a single thing about this movie? Maybe one or two. I don’t have anything to say. **

The Christmas Chronicles — Kurt Russell plays Santa Claus. That was the only fact I needed to get me to watch. The movie itself is pretty standard affair as a family movie. There is some mild fun to be had, and Russell is clearly enjoying himself. Its fine. ***

The Living Daylights — I guess I had never actually seen this movie. I thought I had, but apparently thought different parts of License to Kill, as well as small bits from this movie, were The Living Daylights. Know I understand why Dalton’s take on Bond has gotten something of a reappraisal lately. This is just an excellent spy movie. All the things people love about Bond movies, more serious and exciting than a lot of the Moore movies, but still not dour. ****

License to Kill — And just as quickly as the Dalton era of Bond started, it goes off the rails. This movie is bad. It is dark and stupid and just kind of dull. It feels too long, even though it is roughly the same length as the previous movies. I liked almost nothing about this movie. **

Braven — Jason Momoa stars in a tight little action movie. Some drug runners hide their drugs in Momoa’s hunting cabin. He just so happens to visit, with his father and daughter, when they are attempting to retrieve their stash, sparking a stand off. It follows with some solid action in something like the Die Hard mold. Normal guy Momoa fights off a bunch of armed thugs. It works. ***1/2

Robin Hood — read review here. **1/2

Tomorrow Never Dies — Bond fighting with a new media mogul who is trying to use access to information as a way to start wars and make money is still surprisingly topical. Also. Michelle Yeoh is great, if severely underused. This is still on the good side of Bond movies. ***

The World is Not Enough — I don’t know how much this is influenced by this being the movie that made me a Bond fan, but for all of its weakness, like a miscast Denise Richards and some truly weak action scenes, I still really like a lot of what is going on here. Having a supposed Bond girl turn out to be not just a villain but the villain is a great twist. ***1/2

Mortal Engines — read review here. ****1/2

Aquaman — read review here. *****

Mowgli — Reactions to this live action take on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book have been muted, at best. It is decent enough, all I really have to say about it is that this movie is much better than Disney’s recent attempt at the same thing. That movie had better effects, but it is a worse movie. ***

Dumplin — I don’t have anything to say about it. The plus sized daughter of a former pageant winner enters the pageant she won and learns a lot about herself and about her recently deceased aunt. Its fine. ***1/2

22 July — This movie tells the story of the deadly 2011 terrorist attack in Norway. It is likely a story that needed to be told, but I was not crazy about this movie. **1/2

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — read review here. ****

Die Another Day — I know this is widely considered one of the worst Bond movies. I can’t agree. Not that I think it is particularly good, but it is at least fun once it goes off the rails. And before that moment, which is the when they get to the ice castle, it is actually a pretty solid Bond movie. **1/2

Ralph Breaks the Internet — read review here. ****

The Favourite — read review here. *****

A Fish Called Wanda — This movie is a classic. I first watched it because I was a Monty Python fan. This time I was struck by how excellent Jamie Lee Curtis is in this movie. This is just a great comedy. *****

Star Wars: The Last Jedi — I watched this for the first time since seeing it in theaters and I liked it even more this time. This movie is just so great. It manages to be something new for Star Wars while making a show of being at times both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It is just so good. *****

A Wrinkle in Time — There is a lot to like in this movie. It’s heart is certainly in the right place. Unfortunately, it feels like someone rushing through a book that is too long for one movie. It is filled with ideas that almost certainly worked better on the page. **1/2

TV

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina — This Netflix series from the same people behind Riverdale on CW is good fun. It treats the somewhat goofy witch adventures completely seriously, so it is somewhat chilling. It lacks a little of the pop of Riverdale, but it was still mostly a good time.

Snatch S2 — I think I may be the only person who watched this show, let alone enjoyed it. It is worth your time. It isn’t really anything lasting or memorable, but it is a lot of fun. It is a group doing gangster stuff in Spain. They came together in the first season for a heist, and now they are kind of splintering outside of that focus. But all the scheming is connected. It is a lot of fun.

Titans — This is a show that lead with its worst stuff. The first episode struggles a little with tone, being too violent and dark. Soon, it finds its footing and manages to tell a pretty engaging story. There are still flaws, it sometime leans into the violence too hard and sometimes splits off for odd tangents, but it is mostly a very solid drama. That tangent complaint is about a Hawk and Dove origin episode three quarters of the way through the season that could have been better placed. Otherwise, it has a similar tone to Netflix’s Marvel shows and enough plot to make all of its episodes worthwhile.

Outlander S4 — They are making some changes from the book. That is to be expected. But I am having trouble making sense of those changes. They seem to be changes just for the sake of changing things, and they have a cascading effect. A character no longer has a certain piece of knowledge, so their motivations change, so other character’s reactions change and now things are happening for reasons that no longer make sense. That is harsh for a show that is mostly still really good and the season isn’t over yet, so maybe there is a plan. But I knew there would be changes as the story lost some of its propulsion, since Jamie and Claire finally find a place to settle in book 4, and becomes more episodic. Let’s hope the last handful of episodes bring things home in a satisfying way.

3Below — I liked Trollhunters a bunch and this spin-off/sequel/companion piece is just as good. It switches out magical creatures for space aliens, but has them land in the same small town. It can be a little on the nose at times, but it sets up a handful of interesting characters and adds some depth to those returning from Trollhunters. I hope this continues to be good.

Superhero Shows — Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl had a crossover. I thought it was going to be more of a Crisis and not a prelude to next year’s crisis, but it was still really fun. Having Barry and Oliver switch bodies was almost enough to justify the crossover on its own. Also, seeing Superman and Lois Lane was great, and Batwoman was intriguing. Black Lighting finished the year strong. And Legend of Tomorrow finished with an all-time great episode.

Super Mario Replay: Super Mario World 3D World

Super Mario 3D World is the perfect culmination of all the Mario games that came before it. It shows influences from Super Mario Bros 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Galaxy, New Super Mario Bros., and Super Mario 3D Land. The influences of nearly every game in the series can be felt in this celebration of the series.

 

Like in Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario 3D World has 4 playable characters, initially. Mario, Luigi, Toad and Princess Peach all play roughly like they do in the NES classic. While the brothers themselves being playable it isn’t exactly a surprise, I believe this is the first time Peach has been playable since SMB2. It has a world made that is reminiscent of Super Mario World. It has the simultaneous multiplayer of the console New Super Mario Bros games. The touch of nearly all of the earlier games can be felt in this one.

Super Mario 3D World lacks a little of the wonder of Super Mario Galaxy. Its little diorama levels do not feel as alive as Super Mario Galaxy’s planets. That appears to be deliberate choice. Galaxy was constantly trying, usually successfully, to overawe the player. It tried to make each level seem huge while keeping the player’s focus on the usually actually fairly narrow path. Super Mario 3D World lets the player see the seems. It isn’t trying to be anything more than it is; and what it is is immediately comprehensible. That is necessary when trying to play with more than one player. Everyone has to know where they are and where they are going. The game is almost a complete repudiation of the 3D level design of Super Mario 64. That game attempted to create mini-worlds, 3D World’s levels are clearly artificial levels. It works, but it is a trade off.

There is still plenty of wonder in playing the game. That wonder comes from the delight in the almost puzzle like playgrounds that are its levels. It isn’t the exploration of earlier 3D Mario games, but more of just exploration of how. Something the Mario series does better than anyone else is in its variety. The player’s abilities are actually quite limited, but the game is constantly finding something new to do with them. There are a decent number of power ups. The flashy new one is the cat suit, which dresses each of the playable characters as a cat and gives them vaguely cat themed abilities. With the suit, Mario can climb up wall and swipe at enemies. The levels that feature that power up tend to have more verticality, taking advantage of the climbing abilities. Then there is the double cherries which create a duplicate of your character. That mostly serves to create mayhem, but it also allows for some devilish platforming challenges, requiring the players to keep multiples alive. There are also a bunch of classic power ups with more limited general uses and limited unique power ups that exist mostly for the levels they are found in. Added to that are the differences in characters. To get all the collectibles, some stages require using a certain character. Otherwise, it is smart to fit the character to a stage. For most stages, a player will likely want to use Mario or Peach, depending on the player’s skill. Mario, as usual, is the all around character while Peach is slow, but her hovering jumps act as a useful crutch for new players. Luigi is the best jumper of the group and is needed to get to some hard to reach area, while Toad is the fastest and can simply run by some obstacles. The game, infuriatingly but understandingly, tends to put character specific collectibles in stages where that character is not the expected choice. Still, all that is superfluous and only really interesting on a replay.

For as good as the whole game is, and honestly Super Mario 3D World might be my favorite game in the series, the crown jewel are the Captain Toad levels. It makes sense that Captain Toad got his own spin-off based on those levels; they are a delight. While I called the regular stages dioramas, Captain Toad’s stages are the ones that really run with that idea. The stages are even more limited, mostly fitting onto one screen, and so is the character’s abilities. Toad can walk and he can walk slightly faster. That is about the extent of his skills. He can’t even jump. You have to mosey him around the stage snagging stars out from under the noses of oblivious enemies, mostly through stepping on switches and manipulating the stage. I love them.

The biggest flaw with the game is that Nintendo shut down Miiverse. Miiverse has always been a great idea that was never going to work. There is a lot of 3D World Miiverse functionality that doesn’t do anything anymore. One of the collectibles from stages are generally very neat stamps for Miiverse posts that are now useless. Miiverse created a sense of community in the game and you feel its lack. Even without it, Super Mario 3D World is still a damn near perfect game.

Now Playing December 2018

Beaten

Mega Man 2 — I looped back around and finished off the NES Mega Man series by beating the game I am currently prepared to admit is the best of the bunch. (I have long been on the Mega Man 3 side of that argument, but it is always close.) Mega Man 2 is a just such a perfect, compact slice of game. Every game after this adds something between the 8 robot masters and Dr. Wily’s castle. Here, it goes one to the other. The game is smaller, but it feels like a more comprehensible experience. Mega Man 2 is just such a great game.

Ongoing

Rune Factory 4 — Eventually I am going to get through this game. It is likely going back on the backburner for a while, but one day I will clear it. I am more than halfway through, but the odd gameplay incentives that this game creates usually put me off after a few hours. I don’t know how to describe it; it seems like when I am gearing up for adventuring, the game pushes me to do farming, when I am happily farming, the game seems to want to get to those dungeons. I think the problem is me, not the game, but I keep only being able to nibble at this.

Final Fantasy 15 — I got this for Christmas last year and have only barely started it. I wanted to make some real progress, but the game just hasn’t really clicked for me. I just don’t quite get it. I might just need to force my way through some more story stuff and really get some progress going. It might just have to take some steps back on my backlog. I like the setting, so far, it is that I haven’t quite digested and understood how the game plays. I will, though.

Celeste — I got talked into buying this while it was on sale and I am loving it. It is hard, but it letting up pick up right at the spot you failed takes a lot of the sting out of the difficulty. Honestly, it feels a lot like 1001 Spikes, another super hard platformer. Celeste it trying to do a lot more with its story. It also has a very acrobatic set up. It gives the player a very simple set of tools and then just figures out every possible use for them. It is great.

Etrian Odyssey V — I apparently put this game down last winter just before I hit the spot where the whole game kind of gelled. That point is one I’ve found in every Etrian Odyssey game. For a while, sometimes 3-4 floors, sometimes closer to 6, the game just kind of is. Mapping out floors is as addictive as ever, but the personalities of the classes are clear yet; the player doesn’t quite know how things fit together. Then you hit a point when the characters start getting more skills and you can finally really craft the party you want and everything just feels right. I hit that point within an hour or two of getting back into this and have cruised through most of the game. I should have it beaten and a full post about it up not long after this one.

Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean — I bought this back when it first game out (more than 15 years ago) and have never made it much further than the first town. It is something that was certainly right in my wheelhouse when it came out. I just never really got around to sinking sufficient time into it. During Christmas break, when I was at my parent’s home with the Gamecube, I tried it out again. I didn’t make it much further than the opening town. I like the look of it and I like the concept. I just didn’t have the time to sink into it. I intend to get back to it.

Upcoming

Dragon Quest XI — This is the only video game I got for Christmas and I am going to push right to the top of my PS4 queue. It looks really good.

Pillars of Eternity — I backed this on kickstarter way back in the day, but I never got around to playing it. Or at least, I never go much further than the character creation screen. My brother getting the game, on XB1, for Christmas kind of reminded me that it exists and I am going to try to play it next month.

Top 10 Movies of 2018

I put this list off for a few days because a lot of good 2018 movies hit streaming services right at the start of January (or were still there from earlier but now I had time to get to them) and I thought I might find something I wanted to add to this list. However, with apologies to Roma, Support the Girls and Annihilation, I’ve decided to keep my list as it was.

Honorable Mentions: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Incredibles 2, Bad Times at the El Royale – All three are really good movies that probably deserved a spot on my list. But when considering my ten favorite movies of the year, I went with personal enjoyment over other considerations.

10. Mortal Engines – I can’t look at someone with a straight face and say that I think Mortal Engines is strictly better than any of the movies in the my honorable mentions. However, I know that I enjoyed watching it so much more than them that I am giving it the last spot on my list.

9. Mission Impossible: Fallout Not the best in the series, but there are so many outstanding sequences. MI is the best spy movie franchise.

8. BlacKkKlansman – A brilliant look at race in America and propaganda, and the outward similarities in the black power and white nationalist movements despite how different their goals and places in society, highlighting how fundamentally gross the white nationalists are.

7. Widows – Perfect pulp with something more on its mind. It has a lot of great actors elevating already pretty good material.

6. Aquaman – A wild romp that never knows when to say enough. It just keeps tossing on more and more.

5. Black Panther – A great combination of a fantasy epic and a superhero movie that more than deserved every bit of its success.

4. The Favourite – Just piles of perfectly biting and witty dialogue as people vie for power and access to power.

3. Blindspotting – A thoughtful and sympathetic drama that deftly explores notions of race and identity.  It not easy to describe in one or two sentences.

2. The Death of Stalin – This movie manages to be both amazingly funny and amazingly dark. It looks into the pitch black hearts of the vultures who tried to grab power after the death of Stalin and turns their deadly machinations into a farce. It is nearly perfect.

1. Sorry to Bother You – This showed up on hulu and I watched it again. It is still amazing. I love just about everything about it.

The Favourite Review

The Favourite turns a story of the political machinations of the 18th century English court into a brilliant, witty comedy. It plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, but that really isn’t the point and it doesn’t diminish what is one of the funniest and smartest comedies of the year.

The film is centered around three excellent performances. Emma Stone plays Abigail Hill, a young noblewoman who has fallen on hard times who has come to seek help from her cousin. That cousin, Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz, is the current power behind the throne, running Queen Anne’s court with an iron fist. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, a physically and psychologically weak Queen who tries to do her job well. The Queen holds all of the power, but lacks to ability to actually use it, and Abigail and Sarah jockey for the position as her favorite to have the power turned to what is important to them, while also being generally kind of mean to everyone around them. All three are great performances. Sarah essentially controls Queen Anne. They have been friends all their lives, and Sarah knows how to manipulate and goad Anne into seeing things her way. Their balance is upset with the arrival of Abigail, who at first is hired as a maid but works to make herself indispensable to both Sarah and Anne. Abigail does not want to return to the life of hardship she has known and will do nearly anything to insulate herself from that. Sarah wants to maintain her position and the Queen needs genuine human contact.

The Favourite does an amazing of getting the viewer to change their sympathies over the course of the movie. At the start, Queen Anne seems weak and easily manipulated, Sarah ruthless and Abigail tragic. The movie starts the viewer in Abigail’s corner, with her stories of hardships contrasted against the lavish lives of those living in or near the royal palace. The movie then reveals more about Sarah and Anne that changes how you view them. Anne is weak, but she has also undergone many tragedies in her life and is shown to want desperately to be a good Queen. Sarah, meanwhile, is revealed to actually care under her prickly exterior.

The women take center stage, there are men on the outsides. Nicholas Hoult plays Robert Harley, a political enemy of Sarah and just a complete ass. There is also Samuel Marsham, the almost complete nonentity that ends up married to Abigail. They are there, but the structure of the movie keeps them on the margins. Marsham only matters to Abigail because he is how she get stability. As soon as that is achieved, he is all but forgotten.

Where The Favourite really shines is in its pitch perfect script. It may dispense pretty quickly with historical accuracy, but man it has some great dialogue. Most of it delivered perfectly from Weisz or Stone. Whether it is Weisz’s withering, perfect put downs of the puffed up clowns at court or Stone’s more vulnerable and slightly veiled shots at other characters, it all works.

The Favourite is a purely enjoyable movie. It has some fairly dense psychological underpinnings, dealing with the nature of power and the machinations of those close to it, layered into a wonderfully smart and witty comedy.

*****

Aquaman Review

Through Amazon Prime, I got tickets to an advance screening of Aquaman. I loved it; to a shocking degree. I have generally been more receptive to DC’s superhero movies than most. Sure, Wonder Woman is the only one I wouldn’t begin my defense of with “it’s flawed, but…,” but I’ve enjoyed them. I was still caught off guard at how much fun I had watching Aquaman. Instead of writing a review right then, I decided to see it again. After plans to see it with family over Christmas fell through, I went see again just before New Years and everything fell into place.  I liked it even more the second time around.

Aquaman’s greatest strength is how unrelentingly earnest it is. That is a trait is shares with most of DC’s movie output. Marvel’s movies have this veneer of irony, a remove from the material that by treating it all subtly like a joke. The DC movies have lacked that remove. Aquaman is no different. This is a movie where the villain puts on a silly mask and tells everyone to call him Ocean Master, a moment that is treated as sincerely ominous instead preposterously silly, which it is. However, by playing the joke straight it keeps the viewer in the preposterous world of the movie. Assuming, that is, that the viewer bought in to begin with. It opens with mermaid Nicole Kidman washing up on shore near a lighthouse and pretty quickly fighting a squad of mermen in reverse scuba suit armor. You should know right then if you are in or out. And if you are in, the movie will take out on a ride.

Aquaman is something of an origin story, but not the one we’ve seen repeatedly in superhero movies. Aquaman’s, whose real name is Arthur, journey is one of accepting his place as a child of two worlds and of determining what sort of hero he wants to be. It is the same kind of story that Man of Steel flubbed the landing on. Early in the movie, Arthur makes a choice while rescuing a submarine from submarine pirates. It isn’t necessarily the wrong choice, his decision makes sense and is largely justifiable. It does, however, have repercussions. By the time he feels those repercussions, Arthur knows he made the wrong decision. The next time he faces a similar choice, he chooses otherwise. It is believable and gradual change, with Arthur deciding what kind of person he is going to be. In places Aquaman hits many similar notes to Black Panther, giving the movie something of a fantasy epic feel, like Lord of the Rings as a superhero movie.

Aquaman is also a movie filled with solid performers giving fun performances. Nicole Kidman plays Arthur’s mom. Dolph Lundgren plays an undersea king with murky motivations. Willem Dafoe plays Arthur’s mentor Vulko. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays the villainous Black Manta, though he mostly only gets to show rage. The central characters are Jason Momoa’s Arthur, Amber Heard’s Mera and Patrick Wilson’s Orm. Momoa brings a delightful sort of bro-y charm to Arthur, making him believably conflicted and brash. Wilson is fun as the wrongheaded, but not completely wrong, Orm. He is far enough gone to be villainous, but his motivations, both his larger ones and his more personal ones, are believable. Heard has by far the hardest job, being the only Atlantean to have to have meaningful interactions with the surface while also explaining to Arthur how a lot of the undersea world works. Still, she does it while making Mera a believable character except from some unbelievable wigs.

I am not blind to the movie’s flaws. The most prominent of which is some just miserable dialogue. The plotting of the movie is fine, good even, but the dialogue is frequently dreadful. Sometimes in a fun way, see “Call me Ocean Master,” but more often just being things that no person would ever say to another person. It can be rough. But the movie more than makes up for it with unparalleled spectacle. This is not a movie to hold anything back. It goes places and goes for it with every scene in the movie. You get to see the unreal majesty of Atlantis, then the real beauty of Sicily before the movie takes you to the horror of the Trench and then to the lost kingdom that is the last resting place of Atlantis’s first king. It is very special effects heavy, but it is gorgeous anyway.

I am a sucker for Aquaman’s brand of earnest nonsense. It is the same sort of thing I fell in love with in Flash Gordon (and recently Mortal Engines and 1996’s The Phantom). It is just the sort of movie the I am prone to falling in love with, and I did here.

*****