What I Read January 2019

I guess I read quite a few books in January; three novels and three comic strip collections. I didn’t finish one book I have been working on for nearly six months. Still, it is a solid start to the year, especially if I want to hit my goal number this year of 30 books. Which is quite the come down from the more than fifty I was averaging before law school, but it is still a decent amount.

Sparkling Cyanide

Agatha Christie
An Agatha Christie mystery that doesn’t star any of her well known detectives. A year ago, a young woman, Rosemary Barton, apparently committed suicide by putting cyanide in her champagne. Her husband, George, receives a letter telling him that she was murdered. Realizing that the culprit must be one of the other seven people at the party, he invites them all to a dinner at the same place on the one year anniversary, with a plan to expose the culprit. Unfortunately, George suffers the same fate as his wife. It would have been accepted as a suicide, had George not told Colonel Race about his suspicions and his plan. So Race sets out to find the killer. He goes about it in the usual way, interviewing the witnesses and uncovering a bunch of betrayals and recriminations amongst the party. It is a pretty standard mystery. There is no big twist on the form, merely a largely excellent execution of it.

At the Water’s Edge

Sara Gruen

I am conflicted on this review, because I generally enjoyed this book as I read it over a cold weekend, but I don’t think it is that good. At the Water’s Edge touches on a lot of interesting topics without ever truly engaging with them or actually being interesting. Like the idea that the protagonist, Maddie, is going with her husband to search for the Loch Ness Monster. While the trip is clearly the not serious on the part of the husband, the book doesn’t do much to examine if the characters truly believe. It also makes the Maddie’s husband, Ellis, so irredeemable that it is impossible to believe she ever believed anything he said, though the way one of the villainous reveals is framed is just kind of gross.

The novel starts with the Maddie, Ellis and their friend embarrassing themselves at a party. This is doubly embarrassing for her husband’s parents because it is in the middle of WWII and the husband has been found 4F and is not serving in the military. With his parents cutting him off, he hatches a plan to go to Scotland and search for the Loch Ness monster, which his father had done years before, ending in some unexplained embarrassment for the family. Once they get to their hotel in Scotland, the Maddie sees how the war has affected the people there and just how callous she has been. While her husband continues being gross, she starts to grow. It isn’t an especially complex story; everything is pretty much black and white. People in this book are almost exactly what they initially seem. Still, it only took a few hours to read and while I expect to forget that I read by the middle of the year, I largely enjoyed it. I do wish it had had more Loch Ness monster content.

Calvin and Hobbes (The Days are Just Packed, Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat, Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons)
Bill Watterson

I’ve had these Calvin and Hobbes collections sitting on my kindle for ages, but never really made an attempt to read them. I believe I have read nearly the whole run of this strip. I had encountered most of these before. You already know that Calvin and Hobbes is great, right? Because Calvin and Hobbes is great and these a really good collections.

Japanese Tales

Translated and Edited by Royall Tyler

This is a collection of Japanese Folk tales. They are interesting. Many are truly foreign. Not because they are strange, western folk and fairy tales are often strange, but because they end with morals that are so different from anything I recognize. It makes sense that this book actually starts with a 50 page primer on ancient Japanese culture and myths, laying a groundwork for an American reader to gain at least some of the groundwork necessary to understand these stories. The tales in this book are relatively short, ranging from only a few sentences long to a few pages. They have been grouped in logical blocks of stories with similar themes or characters. It is a fascinating collection, alternately gruesome, gross, sweet or silly. What stood out most to me is how many of these stories I knew from playing Clover Studios masterpiece Okami, which also largely dealt in myth and folktales.

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What I Watched January 2019

Movies
The Phantom – Oh my God! How is this movie not widely regarded as a classic? It is a near perfect action adventure movie. I need to write something more full bodied about this movie. I loved everything about it. *****

Punisher War Zone – This showed up on Netflix and I jumped on it. It is astounding. This is a movie that realizes how much of a cartoon the Punisher actually is. It plays it like a serious crime drama in some ways, but in others it is more like a Looney Tunes cartoon. It is an appealing mix. ****

Support the Girls – An interesting film, starring Regina Hall (check that) as the manager of a Hooters-like restaurant. It follows her for a day, as she does her best to look out for her employees while dealing with the unreasonable owner and some bad decisions from those employees. It manages to not be completely crushing while highlighting the difficulties faced by its characters. ****1/2

Blindspotting – I’ve reviewed this here. I watched it again and I think it holds up on subsequent viewings. *****

His Girl Friday – A great screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Lots of rapid fire dialogue and witty lines. It is a delight. *****

The Addams Family – I’ve reviewed this before. I might not be able to analyze this movie objectively. I don’t care, I love it. *****

On the Basis of Sex – read review here. ***1/2

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek – read review here. ****

Serenity – read review here. *1/2

Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened – One of two nearly simultaneously released Fyre documentaries. This one, from Netflix, is more slickly produced and takes a close look at exactly how this disaster came to be. It is more of a blow by blow of the disastrous set up for the failed festival. Both of these docs are compromised in some ways, this one was partly produced by the advertising company who advertised for Fyre, and they do their best to ease their culpability. It is an interesting story. ***

Fyre Fraud – The other Fyre documentary, this one from Hulu. It is a little more ramshackle and has a greater focus on how Fyre became a thing culturally and more of the effect on the victims. Again, this one is possibly ethically compromised by paying Billy McFarland, the man chiefly responsible, for an interview, though the doc doesn’t go easy on him. This one takes a much more strident view of the failed festival as a crime. Honestly, they are about equally good and are different enough that they don’t overlap all that much, so watching both gives a really complete look at this mess. ***

Austin Powers in Goldmember – There are parts of this movie that don’t work 15 or so years later. There are lots of dated cultural references, though not the Tom Cruise cameo. The wordplay and genial goofiness, though, hold up quite well. I’ve written before about how there is something comforting about these movies that were big when I was in high school, regardless of their actual quality. ****

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – It has been a long time since I actually sat and watched Fellowship. This is an excellent movie. It really is a journey, and does an amazing job of laying the foundation for the rest of this epic. The most dynamic character, in this film, is Boromir. You get a great sense of his struggle, of how his need to help his homeland causes him to fail and betray his allies, at least momentarily. This is such a great movie, so many unforgettable moments. *****

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – Still great. *****

TV
A Series of Unfortunate Events S2&3 – I should maybe read this books some day. They came out when I was a little too old to be paying attention. Based on this show, though, I really like this series’ sensibility. I love its mix if macabre humor, literary references and meta-textual tricks. I watched the first season when it came out, but skipped the second season for some reason. When the third hit, I sped through both of them. The show is so great. Really solid performances from the kids, and Neil Patrick Harris is clearly having a great time as the villainous Count Olaf. The show is at its best when it leans into it showiness. It does a great job of appearing happy and peppy, while spending the whole time telling the viewer that this is an unhappy story. When the unhappy turns come, they aren’t shocking. In fact, as a viewer you are disappointed in yourself for expecting anything else. This is a really solid show.

Homecoming – I wish I had more to say about this show. It is very good. It is a mystery that plays out across two time periods, with Julia Roberts playing a counselor at a facility for soldiers with PTSD in the past and working as a waitress in the present. I don’t want to say more and risk spoiling anything. It is very good.

Outlander S4 – Season 4 did a lot of good things, but it is adapting a book that is rough to condense into a TV season. It is a transitional book in the series; developing a new setting for the series going forward. The season, at least the back half, chose to focus on the romance between Brianna and Roger. That is the most important thread from the book and it manages to construct a solid enough story. The problem is, knowing how things go in the book I had a hard time accepting a lot of the changes made. Mostly because I know they will frequently have cascading effects. If I could think of a good reason for some of the changes, for example in the book when Roger leaves Brianna after finding her in Wilmington (?) it is with the express promise to meet her later. In the show, he does so after being told to go back to their own time. The change makes the fight more memorable, I guess, but why later is Brianna waiting for Roger, when she doesn’t know he is coming back. There are numerous such changes, and it makes for a sometimes frustrating watch. Still, I am looking forward to the next season. Hopefully it has more Fergus and Marsali.

Future Man S1&2 – This is a frustrating show. Because it is often very close to being very good. If someone told me they loved it, I wouldn’t think twice about it. There is a lot to like. But something about it consistently put me off. It is in how the show mixes humor and science fiction. It pivots from one to the other when it should stick with what it was doing; going from a working comedy bit to a science fiction bit. When the show actually manages to blend the two, it sings. More often they clash, making for a show that feels like it should be better, even though it is already mostly good. I would watch a season 3, but I can’t say I would miss this show much if it disappeared.

Sex Education – This show takes places in nowhere. It seems like it is set now, in the late 80’s in some small British town in Ohio. If you can get past that weirdness, it is a solid teen drama. Otis, a repressed teen with a sex therapist mother, teams up with Maeve, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, team up to provide sex therapy to their classmates. The show introduces a ton of teens who are having teen problems, some of them sexual, some not. Soon, Maeve and Otis are not only helping their classmates, they are also dealing with their own personal problems. That impossible setting gives the show a sort of timelessness; there are elements that are very reminiscent of my own teen years, despite other parts being things I never encountered. It is another show that front-loads some of its harshest content; the show gets a lot more comfortable after a rough first episode that does seems to be trying to do to much. It just gets better as it goes around.

Happy! – This show should not work as well as it does. Chris Meloni stars as an ex-cop turned drugged out hitman. He finds a new partner in Happy, a young girl’s imaginary friend sent to find help after she had been kidnapped. Things start weird, and get weirder. Meloni’s Nick Sax is a force of nature. He is very good at a few things, the most important one, on this show at least, is killing people. It does a great job of showing how deadly he is up front, so it makes sense when people sent to kill him later treat him like he’s John Wick. And Meloni infuses everything he does with a coked out madness that is also somewhat sad. I feel the need to stress that the show is often gross. It works anyway; I really like it. I am ready for season 2.

Golaith S2 – This show completely fell apart at about the halfway point. I’ve loosed my venom elsewhere and I don’t really have it in me to tear into this miserable show again. It is ostensibly a legal drama, but all the legal parts of it go away near the midpoint. That element is replaced with preposterously stupid nonsense about a Mexican cartel. Character’s motivations just switch, making no sense with what came before. It confuses darkness with depth. It is really just bad in every way it could be bad. I know a season 3 is coming, I hope it is more like season 1 than this pile of shit.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego – A new Netflix cartoon take on this classic edutainment character. This show turns Carmen Sandiego into a hero, making her a kind of Robin Hood like figure. It mostly works, and occasionally gets in it history lessons. The back story is very involved, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It is pitched a little young for me, but the show seems about perfect for like 8-12 year olds. I was drawn in for nostalgia for old Carmen Sandiego games.

Frontier S2 – I am going to be completely honest; I sort of lost the plot with this show. There are so many characters and I started it long ago enough that I don’t quite remember who they all are. I had enough fun with it, but it a little like watching a show through fog. I almost need to start over rather than moving on to season 3 like I intended to.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt S4 Part 2 – These final six episodes of what has been one of my favorite Netflix shows were slightly disappointing. It doesn’t really feel like they were aware they were in the endgame until right at the end and there aren’t quite as many laugh out loud moments as were in previous seasons. That second problem is understandable, since this is only half a season. There are good moments, but nothing touches the first half of the season’s Party Monster episode. The big swing is the alternate reality Sliding Van Doors episode, which doesn’t quite work as well as it should. It has its moments and is a good episode, but I don’t think it is a great one. Still, I am sad to see this show go. With the loss of this and of Great News, there is suddenly a dearth of Tina Fey/Robert Carlock comedy coming. Maybe I should just be glad I got 4 seasons of this, 2 of Great News, and 7 of 30 Rock. Kimmy Schmidt has been one of the funniest shows on television since it started and I look forward to the possibility of a follow up movie.

The Good Place S3 – This might not be as consistently excellent as the first two seasons were, but if not it is still damn close. The show continues to just eternally upend everything every couple of episodes. It remains one of the funniest shows on TV, capable of getting laughs out of jokes about relatively obscure philosophers. The best show on television.

Now Playing January 2019

Beaten

Etrian Odyssey V – read about it here.

Pillars of Eternity & The White March – As a big fan of Black Isle studios rpgs, I backed the Pillars of Eternity kickstarter way back in 2012. Unfortunately, when the game came out my old laptop was not quite up to the task of running it. So I let the game languish in my steam library for the last couple of years. Over Christmas, I realized that not only did I have a computer capable of running the game, I also had the time to play it. So installed it, bought the expansion and tried it out.

The game delivered everything I hoped it would. I don’t know that it is quite as good as Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale, but it delivered a substantially similar experience. It took me some time to learn the rules, but once I did everything felt right. The most important part of this sort of game is character creation. Pillars of Eternity gives you a lot of options. The hard part is choosing what direction to go. There is almost always a best choice, either with the goal of min/maxing the game or just choosing a class the fits the best with the rest of the team members you want to use. I went with a dwarven ranger with stag animal companion. I also tried out a chanter. On an initial playthrough, the game seems to have done a solid job of balancing the need for physical fighters and various spellcasters. The weakness is that there is no rogue party member without the White March expansion. You can get trapfinding abilities without being a rogue, but rogue do get an advantage there and aren’t pulled in different directions like mages. You can make extra party members to fill in gaps, but they won’t have personalities like the game’s premade companions.

The place where I at first found the game lacking but some came to see as a strength is its array of party members. The first two it hands out are Aloth and Eder, seem a little disappointing. They aren’t really exciting characters initially. I never really warmed to Aloth’s gimmick. But Eder’s gimmick is essentially that he doesn’t have one. He just this laconic fighter who occasionally drops in witty, wry comments. As the game went on, doing his character quest and otherwise, he developed into one of my favorite characters in the game. Mostly because he could have normal reactions to things while also occasionally having something interesting to say. No one is likely to find all the characters interesting, but on the whole they are largely well written and well developed. Aside from Eder, I greatly enjoyed adventuring with the proud Paladin Pallegina, and the dwarven ranger Sagani (having another ranger with my player character also being a ranger kind of limited options, but I liked her). I also used Hiravias quite a bit. The only character I didn’t warm to at all was Cana Rua, and honestly I didn’t truly give him a chance. And the new characters of the White March fit in surprisingly well. Even the robot character. I found Zahua’s backstory surprisingly effective and I really enjoyed Maneha’s general vibe.

I guess I’ve had good luck. Nearly all the kickstarter games I backed delivered. I am glad I backed this one. This game is excellent.

Zack & Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure – read about it here.

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King – read about it here.

Ongoing

Celeste – I am so close to the end on this. It is such a good game. I have played a lot of hard platformers, but I don’t think I’ve played one that is as devious as this game is and that trains its players how to beat it. You can point to the first stage of Super Mario Bros for a beginners guide for teaching a player how to deal with obstacles in a game and many games follow a similar progression, Celeste uses those tool more effectively than most. It is aided in this by its friendly to lives and respawning. The game all but encourages the player to try things out, because the penalty for death is so small. That small penalty makes it less frustrating when the game is really hard. It reminds me a lot of 1001 Spikes, a game I love.

Dragon Quest 11 – I got this for Christmas, and through the first fifteen or so hours it is everything I could possibly want out of a new Dragon Quest game. I like my party, half-formed as it is at this point. I love the way Dragon Quest tells its stories through vignettes that are largely self-contained but manage to advance the central story in small ways. Functionally, this game is not much different from Dragon Quest V. The change is almost entirely visual and this game looks astounding. I am sure those who are more technically minded could point out flaws and compromises in this game’s visuals, I see what looks like a near perfect realization of Akira Toriyama’s designs as 3D figures. I could see people complaining about the lack of innovation here, but I have no problem with a game effectively executing a formula so long as it is a good formula, and Dragon Quest’s formula is one of the best.

Luigi’s Mansion Dark Moon – I cleared the first few missions on this. For some reason it has a bad habit of closing itself and kicking me back to the home menu. Maybe I am holding the 3DS oddly and hitting the power button. Whatever is happening, it is frustrating. This is fine so far, but it is getting kicked back down the queue as soon as Etrian Odyssey Nexus is released.

 

Upcoming

Etrian Odyssey Nexus – This comes out early next month and will take over my 3DS for the foreseeable future. Honestly, this is feeling as much like a farewell to playing new games on my trusty old handheld as much a farewell to this series that is likely ending with that handheld. Good night, sweet prince, et cetera, et cetera.

Disney’s Epic Mickey – My ongoing quest to finish up some old Wii games that have been sitting around half finished comes to this almost classic. I liked this game just fine a decade ago, but I got distracted before finishing it. Epic Mickey doesn’t want for ambition, I’ll say that at least.

Beyond Good and Evil – an online game club I am a part of is playing this game. I intend to dig out my copy and spend some time with it in the next few weeks. Maybe I’ll beat it, I don’t remember it being that long.

Serenity

I was excited to see Serenity. It has a good cast, with stars like Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, as well as excellent supporting players like Diane Lane (she is a star, but she is supporting here), Jason Clarke and Djimon Hounsou. The initial concept is appealing as well, a sun-drenched tropical noir, with McConaughey’s Baker Dill being asked to do something bad for a whole lot of money. The twist, which I will endeavor not to spoil other than to acknowledge that a twist exists, sends things off into crazy town. Honestly, though, the movie was off the rails before that, in some ways as groundwork for the twist, in others that just make no sense.

Baker Dill is a fisherman, hiding from his mysterious past on a tropical island. He hires his boat out to fishermen, but doesn’t make a lot of money because he has a habit of snatching the poles away from his customer when he suspects he is about to land his nemesis, a giant tuna Dill has named Justice. When on the shore, he either spends his time sticking it to lonely widow Constance, who pays him for his company to make up for his fishing failures when he returns her persistently lost cat, or drinking at the one local bar. Soon, the answer to his money troubles appears in the form of his ex-wife, played by Anne Hathaway. She tells him that her new husband Frank is abusive to both her and their son and asks Dill to kill him. Dill is understandably hesitant, but soon events go in a direction impossible to foresee.

While it may be part of setting up the twist, the set up in the first half of the movie is laughable. It has terrible dialogue and ridiculous premises. I already mentioned the tuna named Justice, which is actually close to subtle in for this movie. Constance spends her time either with Dill in bed or watching him out her window. People do and say the same things every day. This is only broken up by brief unexplained glimpses of Dill’s son. Then there is the new new husband, Frank, who is perfectly loathsome. He starts bad, with accusations of abuse, and just gets worse and worse. From forcing his wife to call him Daddy to suggesting a night out on the town to find underage prostitutes. In every way a person can be gross, Frank is gross. It is a symptom of the movie not knowing when there is enough. Like Dill’s obsession with a fish called Justice.

The set up is for a cliche noir story, but with the cast on hand that might have been enough for a watchable film. Not something truly memorable, but probably entertaining enough. Serenity is not content with simple competence, so it takes a big swing and strikes out. The twist is bewildering, with the rules making less and less sense the more you think about them.

I will say this for Serenity; it is certainly memorable. It is not often that a movie this perplexingly bad hits theaters. It is a special kind of disaster; one where the filmmakers saw the ruin they were headed to and steered into the mess rather than attempting to salvage things. Serenity is entertainingly terrible.

*1/2

On the Basis of Sex

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is absolutely a person who deserves a biopic made about her. I only wish that a slightly better one had been made. On the Basis of Sex isn’t bad, but it is so predictable. You know the beats the movie is going to hit pretty much as soon as it starts, not as a product of being familiar with history but because On the Basis of Sex’s beats are the same as any inspirational biopic. The initial hurdles, the successes and setbacks that all build up to a triumph where she realizes her ambitions; it has all been done before. Still, On the Basis of Sex is a fine movie about an important and heroic figure that never surprises or surpasses expectations.

On the Basis of Sex follows the future Supreme Court Justice from when she entered Harvard Law School to the early stages of her fight legal equality between women and men. The movie details her struggles in law school, with the inherent sexism of Harvard and its faculty and her husbands bought with cancer. It then follows her difficulty in finding employment as an attorney before settling in as a law professor and then finding the right case to pursue sex discrimination in the courts.

Everything is drawn somewhat broadly, as biopics often do. One encounter is there to stand in for a pattern of behavior, so that one encounter must hit all the points. Or the pattern is pointed out in dialogue. Sometimes these moments are worked smoothly into the course of the film, sometimes they fit in awkwardly. Some of the law school moments establish an effective pattern, Ginsburg explaining all of her bad interviews to an interviewer in what turns out to be another bad interview is a bit much.

Still, the movie hits the highlights of the story quite well. It tells its story just fine. The best part is its portrayal of the Ginsburg’s marriage. They are a fine partnership. A lot of that has to do with the performances of Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer. Jones infuses Ginsburg with this quiet fierceness, letting you see her sharp intellect and occasionally sharp tongue while still seeing how her struggles get to her. Then there is Hammer as her eternally supportive husband. A lot of his support comes merely from his recognizing her talents in a way others in their profession refuse to. The rest of the cast is filled with excellent players do the best with their small parts. The movie has a scene or two for Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Justin Theroux and Stephen Root. They all acquit themselves well in parts that don’t leave a lot of room for them to work.

As a current law student, the moot court practice gave me terrifying flashbacks. From the odd formal beginning to the pointed questions that seem to exist just to throw you off your game. A lot of the details of Ginsburg time in law school rang especially true, even though her time in law school was about fifty years ago.

On the Basis of Sex is fine. It is everything one would expect from a biopic and nothing else. It feels a little disappointing, but this is a year where Bohemian Rhapsody, which is outright bad outside of the music and a performance or two, got nominated for Best Picture. On the Basis of Sex could certainly have been worse.

***1/2

Etrian Odyssey V

The Etrian Odyssey series is one of my favorites of the last ten years. I have spent a lot of time with my 3DS methodically mapping out dungeons while trekking ever deeper in the their dangerous unknown. I was greatly anticipating Etrian Odyssey V last fall. Then I played it for a handful of hours and put it aside. As I picked it back up and played through it recently, I realized my lack of enthusiasm was because this is a lesser entry in the series.

Most Etrian Odyssey games have a moment when it all clicks; when the party fits together and you have a strategy for taking on a dungeon. I put this down just before I hit that point, when I realized that I was going to get the bulk of my damage out of my Pugilist and the synergy between the Fencer and Warlock, while my Botanist was going for pure healing instead of status effects. But even at that point, the game didn’t really click. I pushed through and enjoyed it, but nothing about this game really stood out. The classes are interesting. Pugilist is one of my favorite classes I’ve encountered, but none of the rest really did much for me. It seemed to take a lot of set up to get most of them going and I don’t really like fiddly classes. Pugilist, a hand to hand fighter class that powers up based on HP shenanigans, is really easy to use and has a great risk/reward mechanic. Otherwise, they classes left no impact. The same is true of the different dungeon stratums, which were either nothing new, all but the third stratum, or new but not especially interesting, like the third strata’s graveyard. It is the motions of the series, but nothing to really make it interesting.

Etrian Odyssey V’s big innovation are its races, but while they add quite bit if customization to the characters, it ends up being largely unnecessary and I honestly forgot about it for much of the game. There are Earthian, Celestrian, Therian and Brouni. They roughly translate to traditional fantasy races, humans, elves, and dwarves, with the Therian’s being the only ones who don’t. They are rabbit people. The Celestrians make good mages, Therians deal a lot of damage, Earthian’s are good all around. There is a lot to consider, but the game doesn’t require it at all. At first the races are restricted to specific classes, but eventually you get the ability to reclass. It rarely makes sense to do so, because a race’s stats are generally closely aligned with their initial classes. Its neat, but unnecessary.

For the most part, the game just feels kind of rote. It doesn’t do anything memorable or interesting. EOIV had the world map, with multiple little dungeons instead of one big one. EO3 had story choice and the sailing mini-game. The first game had originality going for it, and the Untold games had the novelty of a set party. This game is just fine. It doesn’t do anything necessarily wrong, but it doesn’t really do anything interesting either. I enjoyed this outing well enough, but it is one of the last entries in the series I would turn to for a fix in the future.

I thought this was going to be the last Etrian Odyssey on the 3DS, but Atlus has announced Etrian Odyssey Nexus, which is likely to be the series swan song, at least in it current incarnation. While the first Etrian Odyssey hit a little further into the DS’s life than I remembered, (it came out in 2007, more than two and half years after the DS) this series was always one that seemed like a backbone of the system. Etrian Odyssey was certainly never a big seller, but when I think of the DS, it comes to mind, along with Phoenix Wright and Trauma Center. While Trauma Center has kind of disappeared and Phoenix Wright comes and goes, Etrian Odyssey has been there all along. A new game every other year or so, no big changes to the formula, just new classes and new dungeons and new adventures. I am glad I get that one more time and I hope it is more inspired than this one was.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

This is the first great movie of 2019. I think. After more than a week to think about, that is what I am going with. While there are certainly twists and turns in this thriller, it is a rather simple movie. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a perfect example of the movie just doing the thing. Contrast this with the recently released Serenity, an island noir that refuses to just be a noir, to admittedly hilarious results. Sparrow Creek is just a small, condensed mystery thriller. It just does that, with no special shifts in genre or concept mid-movie. And it all works well.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is about a militia group. They meet at their warehouse headquarters after hearing police reports of a shooting at a police funeral. The seven men quickly determine, based on some missing gear and a missing assault rifle, that one of the seven of them was the shooter. They decide to find out who did and turn that person in to the police in order to keep them from taking the whole group down. So ex-cop Gannon starts to investigate the other men in the group. He quickly narrows it down to young loner Keating or he standoffish Morris. Meanwhile, militia leader begins to suspect Noah, who has some kind of connection to Gannon and lied to the others upon arriving. Tensions rise as Gannon and Ford struggle over how to find out who is responsible. Meanwhile, reports on the police scanner suggest that other militia’s like theirs have risen up across the nation to fight back against the corrupt police, making the group wonder is they really want to turn in the culprit.

The movie is rather simple in form; it is essentially a kind of locked room mystery. But it is playing a bigger game. Gannon, played by James Badge Dale, is very effective at his job, but he is more worried about finding a scapegoat than actually getting to the truth. He is not exactly a reliable narrator. You can’t really trust him; he joined this militia same as these other disaffected criminals. But he is the center of the film. Each of the other characters, in a cast made up entirely of familiar faces if not familiar names, is broken in a slightly different way. Each one is an outcast. You never really sympathize with them, their goals and beliefs are abhorrent, but you can almost understand how they got there.

Without spoiling any of the narrative twists, things eventually come to a boil as most of the characters secrets are revealed. The conclusion ties everything together in a way that makes sense, but also keeps the viewer guessing right until the end. That ending, if I am interpreting things correctly, may not be as palatable as what came before, but it is still something. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek does not do anything truly new or revolutionary, it merely executes an old fashioned thriller at a very high level.

****