What I Read in March 2019

I only read one book in March. March was a rough month, even with a week off from law school for spring break in the middle of it. Still, even with finishing only one book this month I am still on pace to read more this year than I have the last two.

The Woman Who Died A Lot

Jasper Fforde

The one book I managed to finish in March was a reread of one of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books.  The last Thursday Next book.  I didn’t forget how incredibly inventive Fforde is, especially in this series but also always, but I did manage to forget nearly the entire plot.  That is unusual for me.  Generally, once I start a reread the detail start to come pretty fast.  I might forget details or even whole characters, but as soon as I start with the book it is all there.  Here, it was like reading it all again for the first time.  I remembered that Thursday was old in this book, and I remembered a few other details, but I didn’t even remember the conceit that got the book its title.

This book is called “The Woman Who Died A Lot” to reference the fact that Thursday keeps getting replaced with synthetic duplicates for reasons that are not clear at first.  Her mind is somehow transferred into this fake version of her.  Unfortunately, these fakes are only designed to live for about a day.  When they die, she returns to her body.  The contrast here is that current Thursday is both getting old and injured.  So she can only really fight back against the evil Goliath Corporation when she is a duplicate.  Over the course of the book, she dies a lot.

I have long since accepted that Jasper Fforde is my favorite author.  I think I accepted that as he went a half decade without publishing a book.  Rereading this book, a perfectly fine but apparently forgettable entry in his signature series reminded me why he is my favorite and reinforced his position.  I am ready for whatever he has next, and until then I guess I’ll reread what I’ve already got.

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Shazam! Review

For most people, the DC cinematic universe got started on the wrong foot.  The first two Zack Snyder directed films are controversial to say the least and set a tone that is certainly not to everyone’s taste.  But people seem to be unable to let go of his two and half movies and see what DC has been offering for the last couple of years.  Wonder Woman was one of the best just straightforward superhero movies of the last decade.  Aquaman was a bonkers spectacle that is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.  Shazam continues DC’s trend of making individual movies that play the strengths of the characters, with the unifying feature the sincerity with which they approach things.  Shazam is a pure delight.

Shazam manages to find a new niche in the super hero movie genre.  It feels like a throwback, like the 80’s Amblin version of a superhero movie.  What came to my mind while watching it was Gremlins. Gremlins is a weirdo family horror movie.  This movie is combines a sincere, even touching drama about foster kids with strange magic secrets and some moments of terrifying horror.  It is a unique mix, but one that absolutely works.

Shazam starts with the young Thaddeus Sivana, bullied by his father and older brother, being magically transported to the realm of the wizard Shazam.  Shazam is old and his power is fading.  He is tested to see if he is worthy of the wizard’s power, but succumbs to the temptations of the seven deadly sins, who are monstrous spirits trapped in statues.  Shazam returns Sivana to his horrible family; Sivana then spends the next thirty or so years trying to get back there to get the power he feels he was wrongly denied.  Eventually he does, and the wizard is too weak to stop him from freeing the sins.  The story then shifts to Billy Batson, a troublesome foster kid who is searching for his birth parents.  Knocked around by the system, he doesn’t trust anybody and constantly finds himself in trouble.  At the start of the movie, he is assigned to a group home as sort of his last chance.  After sticking up for one of his foster siblings, he is transported to the wizard.  The wizard is unsure of Billy’s worthiness, but he is out of options and grants Billy the power to turn into the superhero Shazam.  The distrustful Billy must learn how to be a hero before Sivana finds him and wrests the power away.

Shazam feels like something from the 80’s because it is ostensibly a kids movie, but it still features some horrific stuff that is sure to scare kids.  The scenes of Billy and Freddie testing Billy’s new powers are delightful and sure to please children.  But mixed in with those are some scenes of the villains committing terrible crimes or one particularly graphic death.  They are these weird atonal elements that mostly get ironed out of kids movies these days.  There is also the a few genuinely heartbreaking scenes with Billy attempting to track down his mom.  It is this idiosyncratic mix of tones that makes the movie feel fully fleshed out. It also doesn’t feel like an accident, the movie wants to vary the tone.  And the mix just works.

It helps that it has some genuinely charming performances.  The combination of Zachary Levi and Asher Angel as Billy Batson/Shazam is perfect.  They manage to echo each other, making it easy to believe that they are the same person just with different outside appearances.  Jack Dylan Grazer has a perfect mischievous air about him as Freddie Freeman.  The two of them carry the movie, really feeling like a pair of teenagers that stumbled upon superpowers and are pushing the boundaries and seeing what they can do and get away with.  Shazam perfectly juggles teenage irony with a touching, childlike naivety with these two damaged kids figuring things out as best they can.

The movie does spend a little too long on the final confrontation.  It is a scene that seems to go on too long, and that time feels like it could have been better spent fleshing out Billy’s interior journey just a little more.  Still, that is a small complaint in a movie that is otherwise a delight.

Shazam treats the genuinely strange magical backstory of the mythos with admirable sincerity.  Shazam is a concept from the 40’s and it feels like it.  Most often backstories like this get sanded down in the adaptation process, Shazam leans into it, to great effect.  It is just a genuinely charming movie.

*****

Etrian Odyssey Nexus

In a fitting farewell to the DS family of consoles, Atlus has released Etrian Odyssey Nexus. The handheld consoles most consistent series essentially finishes off the console with a greatest hits version of the series. It isn’t the best game in the series, I still waffle between Etrian Odyssey III or Etrian Odyssey IV, but Nexus is a solid summation of the series.

Etrian Odyssey Nexus is essentially the same as the previous Etrian Odyssey games. It is a first person dungeon crawler where the player has a fully customizable party. The player builds their team out of the offered classes to traverse a couple dozen dungeon floors. The concept, as ever, is simple. The execution is generally elegant.

Nexus’s collection of classes is a lot of fun, even if some of them very watered down. Nexus attempts to take the most memorable classes from each game in the series to give the player options that represent all the options they’ve had before. But all of the classes have gone through some revisions to remove the idiosyncrasies from each title. Most made it through pretty well, but some, like EOV’s Pugilist, are shadow’s of their former self. Still, it is hard to not make a really fun party here.

Something is off with the ratio here, though. The game attempts to give you take you through a tour of the previous 5 (or 7, counting remakes) games, so you need to visit all the areas you’ve seen before. But if it did that with full strata, the game would be a hundred floors long. So instead it makes a lot of the early strata only 3 floors long instead of 5 and confines a few of them to one floor mini-dungeons. The problem with this is that each still has a boss at the end of it. So instead of hitting a boss every five floors, it works out to a boss every other floor for the first half of the game. The Etrian Odyssey series has some excellent bosses (all of which get featured in this game), the bosses force a different focus on the player’s party. It isn’t a case, generally, of there being one correct way to beat a boss, but the options for tackling a boss are more constrained than those for exploring the dungeon.

The player is free to craft whatever party they like to get through the dungeons. Not every strategy will work, but there is a ton of freedom in finding a strategy that works for you. I tend to focus on offence, hitting enemies with overwhelming force and beating them before they can do much damage. But it is genuinely just as effect to build a defense heavy team that prevent enemies from doing much damage or a team focused on status effect or binds to shut enemies down. Bosses, though, significantly cut down on viable strategies. And each boss cuts off different strategy. With a handful of floors between bosses, it is possible to make adjustments, where when you fight a boss every other level it is really hard to find space to make those adjustments.

It makes the game more of a slog than it needs to be. Personally, I’ve always preferred exploring the dungeons to fighting the bosses. The bosses were the roadblocks that kept me from the parts of the game I really liked. The somber solitude of exploring the unknown depths of the dungeon is soothing to me. Bosses, while frequently really interesting, get in the way of that. Fighting bosses as often as Nexus puts them in front of the player really mess up the rhythm.

That is a pretty big complaint, and keeps me from even considering this game among the best in the series, but it doesn’t sink the game completely. There is a lot of great exploratory goodness here and the game isn’t quite hard enough to make the bosses that much of a hurdle. And giving every game in the series representation really does make it feel all encompassing for the series. The only thing missing is the Shiren the Wanderer class from Etrian Mystery Dungeon.

There is only one more 3DS game on the horizon. (The Etrian Odyssey/Persona mash-up Persona Q2) Etrian Odyssey Nexus makes for a fitting farewell for the system. Etrian Odyssey has been one of the most consistent series on the DS family of systems. It is up there with Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton in my mind as the games that really made the system. Both of those series have moved on. There have been a lot of other great games on the DS, but there is no series that has been as consistent, good, present as the Etrian Odyssey series. Etrian Odyssey did not make the most innovative use of the secondary touch screen, but it’s use made the most sense. A lot of games put a map on the bottom screen. Etrian Odyssey let the player draw that map. It seems like a small thing, but it really added to the sense of exploration. It is both simple and essential to the appeal. That really showed off the genius of the DS, more so than games that tried to use the touch screen for controls or random tapping.

I am sure the Etrian Odyssey series will continue. Probably on the Switch, maybe on mobile. I am sure I will keep playing the series for the foreseeable future. But this really feels like the end of era. While Etrian Odyssey Nexus is a middling game in the series, it is a worthy way to wrap up this series and the 3DS.

Dumbo

Disney’s animated classic Dumbo is a slim movie, with a runtime just over an hour and few wrinkles to its story.  It feels among the least likely of their animated catalog to merit the full live action remake treatment.  But other than Marvel and Star Wars movies, live action remakes of animated movies is what Disney does these days.  The live action Dumbo clocks in at nearly two hours long and gives almost no one what they wanted to see.  However, the movie is just charming enough to make it hard to hate.

The story of Dumbo is of a big eared baby elephant who learns to fly.  This adaptation adds plot elements from what seems like three other movies to pad it out to full feature length.  There is a story about Colin Farrell’s Holt Farrier, a circus equestrian and WW1 veteran freshly returned from the war.  He lost an arm in the war and his wife died while he was away.  He has to pick himself back up and keep things together for his two kids.  His son exists and that’s about it, but his daughter doesn’t want to follow in her parents footsteps as part of the circus but instead wants to be a scientist.  Holt’s struggles are exacerbated by the fact that while he was gone, the ringleader, Max Medici, sold his horses to keep the circus afloat.  Holt is the center around which the movie revolves, but there isn’t enough done with his struggles to make it the center plank of the movie.  Medici, played by the always delightful Danny Devito, takes up another chunk of the movie dealing with him struggling to keep the circus viable and eventually going into business with the transparently shady V.A. Vandervere.  Vandervere, of course, is only interested in the flying elephant.  The movie introduces a dozen or so characters and a half dozen plots, all because it is unwilling, for good reason, to focus on the spectacle of a flying elephant.

The problem is that Dumbo flying doesn’t look that amazing in live action.  It looked really interesting in traditional animation, but this CGI realistic facsimile inspires little awe.  Really, the movie is missing so much of what makes the original version so entertaining.  The most memorable part of the movie was the Pink Elephants on parade sequence, when Dumbo sneaks some of the circus laborers liquor and has drunken hallucinations of pink elephants on parade.  That scene does not happen in live action movie, but it is replaced with a “realistic” copy that has none of the weird charm, it is merely there to remind you the think you liked in the old movie without actually giving you that thing you liked.

Somehow, though , the movie manages to be charming despite feeling like a mismatched grab-bag of other movies.  A lot of that is thanks to uniformly strong performers being generally very charming.  Devito, Farrell, Eva Green and Michael Keaton are all doing something.  It is fairly enjoyable to watch them.  Each of the four movies that its feels have been Frankensteined together could have been good if fully fleshed out, Dumbo merely gives you glimpses of them. It is not a good movie, but it is somehow charming despite being bad.

**1/2

Now Playing March 2019

Beaten

Etrian Odyssey Nexus – post coming soon. Great farewell to the series and essentially to the 3DS.

Beyond Good and Evil –

I am not going to beat this game. Not this time through. There is a lot about this game that it still admirable. It is one of the better Zelda-likes of the PS2 era. But the game is just a touch clunkier to play than I remembered. Camera problems abound. The idea of Zelda with an active partner is a great one, but block pushing puzzles do not need the added hassle of waiting for the AI to come help push. I am about halfway through the game and I am simply done with it right now.

Ongoing

Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse –

I am giving this another shot and this time I am making some progress. I was going to compare it to my thoughts on the original Shin Megami Tensei 4, but apparently I never wrote about it. And honestly, other than remembering really liking it, I can’t recall too many details. Apocalypse falls into that void of memory even as I play it. That might not be fair to a game I started nearly two years ago, did all the foundational parts and then put down. I enjoy Apocalypse while I play it, but once I put it down for any length of time I forget what I was doing as soon as I pick it up. Still, this time I am intending to stick with it until I beat the game. Maybe it will have left some kind of real impression by then.

Dragon Quest XI – I didn’t play a lot of Dragon Quest XI last month, but I am still loving all the time I am able to put into it. This is a great game and if it keeps up this level of quality it deserved to be remembered with Dragon Quest V as one of the best in the series.

Upcoming

Disney’s Epic Mickey – If I ever get any time to play video games again, I still intend to finally get around to finishing this game. Maybe it’s not worth it, but I genuinely want to get to the last third or so of this game.

Yakuza 3 – Again, I still want to play this, but I just don’t have any time to actually play video games right now. Maybe I should abandon my plan to replay the whole series to build up to Yakuza 6 and just play Yakuza 6.

Monster Hunter Generations – My brother called me and suggested playing some Monster Hunter. So we are going to play this some. Honestly, there is a lot of this game I never experienced. I kind of only beat this one halfway, so going back to it gives me the chance to really dig into the back half of Monster Hunter Generations.

Chrono Trigger – I’ve been feeling the need to play Chrono Trigger, so I think I might give it another run through, at least to a point to get another ending on my DS game file. Maybe I’ll finally do the added dungeon in that game.

Captain Marvel Review

Captain Marvel hits a lot of familiar notes. Like Captain America: The First Avenger, it is a period piece origin story. Like Iron Man it is a movie that works largely due to the charisma of its star. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, it frequently leans on popular music. Captain Marvel tries to blend all of this together, but the movie ends up a lot like its heroine; searching for an identity. The movie is solidly good. It has the highly polished sheen that all Marvel movies seem to have. But it ends up being less the start of a bold new era, instead settling in as merely the bridge between Infinity War and Endgame.

There is a lot to like about Captain Marvel. Brie Larson stars as Carol Danvers, an Air Force pilot who somehow ended up in space, with amnesia working to the Kree as the superpowered Vers. After a mission goes awry and she ends up stranded on Earth, her attempts to complete her mission are derailed by her discovering her past. Larson makes the movie work, showing both Carol’s natural headstrong exuberance and the more subdued persona she is urged to take on with the Kree. She manages to be both vulnerable and a super strong badass. Likewise, Samuel L Jackson appears to be having an enormous amount of fun playing a digitally de-aged version of Nick Fury. The two of them make a great combo and it is fun to see Jackson’s usual intimidating persona become essentially the comic relief. The action is solid as well, both the more grounded stuff and the superpowered fights closer to the end. Nothing mind-blowing or really anything you haven’t seen in other movies, but it is executed well enough.

It also has some flaws. The ones that stand out are how it uses the 90’s period setting. All of the events in the movie happen in the mid-90s. The movie uses this for window dressing, with Radio Shacks and Blockbusters around, along with some 90’s fashion and music. Some have complained about the soundtrack not being exactly period appropriate, but it is not as if the music is diegetic, so that is a nonsense complaint. My problem is that the 90’s setting doesn’t seem to inform any part of the movie. It is just a ploy for nostalgia. That in itself is not that big of a problem, but it feels like a wasted opportunity. Also, the movie spends a lot of time trying to plaster over cracks, real, imagined or created by this movie, in the Marvel Cinematic backstory. Do you want to know how Fury lost an eye? Why they are called Avengers? Any of another half dozen pointless questions? This movie has answers. Not interesting answers, but answers nonetheless.

Captain Marvel does not reach the heights of Thor: Ragnarok or Black Panther. It never does manage to carve out its own identity, like even movies like Ant-Man or Spider-Man: Homecoming do. Its various ingredients do not blend into a solid of a whole as it could have. It just feels like a Marvel movie. I feel like I’ve been very negative in this review, when my thoughts on the movie are largely positive. I guess I do think Captain Marvel is a bit of a missed opportunity, but only because it is very good and not quite great.

****

What I Read February 2019

I managed an incredible feat in February, doing what used to be my routine. I read four books last month. One was a only anticipated release by my favorite author. Another was a book I had hoped to get for Christmas but didn’t so I bought it myself. I also read a couple of Douglas Adams books, because it was about time I did.

Skyward

Brandon Sanderson

I sometimes feel bad when writing about Brandon Sanderson’s books, because I feel like I come off as very negative. I do have some problems with his prose, which are highlighted by this book, which is a young adult book. I think Sanderson’s prose is already kind of simple, and when it is further simplified for a younger audience it gets a little flat. I had that problem with this book; it just read sort of plainly.

That said, Sanderson has significant strengths, which is why I keep reading his books. I really like Sanderson’s writing, I just don’t think it is perfect. He does great work with world building and establishing characters. That is true here. Skyward has humanity exiled to a far off planet, stuck living underground to escape bombardment from the aliens who control the skies. Spensa wants nothing more than to be a pilot, one of those who fight the aliens to try to build a better future for humanity. At first her family’s reputation appears to keep her from that goal, she is allowed to join as a trainee. While she trains, she also finds a strange spacecraft in the caves that she works to get into working condition. The book is mostly team building and training, with Spensa learning a lot of hard truths. It builds to Spensa finally making a decision with the strange ship she found.

Skyward is solid. It lays a lot of groundwork and tells an interesting, if clearly incomplete story. I liked it well enough, but I am hopeful future books in the series are better. This one doesn’t feel like it really comes into its premise until near the end. The story it told is fine, but it feels a little like it was hiding all the good parts. I look forward to more.

Early Riser

Jasper Fforde

If my math is correct, Early Riser is Jasper Fforde’s first book in nearly five years. That is kind of crushing for me, because I discovered him at about the same point he stopped producing new work.  Just as I caught up the well ran dry. But like with the people who complain about George RR Martin not producing A Song of Ice and Fire books fast enough, Jasper Fforde is not my bitch. I don’t get to dictate his writing schedule. I am just happy to have more from him to read. Early Riser did not disappoint.

Early Riser is set in a world where humans hibernate. The whole society is centered around this. There are a select group of people, the Winter Consuls, who stay awake all winter to make sure those who hibernate can do so in peace. The book follows Charlie Worthing, a newly accepted trainee Winter Consul, through much of his first winter awake. As tends to happen, he stumbles into important events that he doesn’t understand. His attempts to navigate through this dangerous events are what makes this book work. Charlie is not a particularly adept protagonist, he gets by mostly on gumption. He is smart enough to know his limitations and lucky enough to get through some tricky situation.

The book really doesn’t disappoint. It is a whole new world for Fforde to play around in. (I think it might actually be the same one from Shades of Grey, but it is different enough to actually be its own thing) He still plays wonderfully with skewed pop culture references, where he references something you know, but changes it just enough to make it clear it is something different. Fforde also never says no to adding a new weird idea into an already weird book. There is always something keeping the reader on their toes. The plot is a not especially intricate thriller, but that works with how intricate the setting is.  I have deliberately not written much about what actually happens in the book, both because explaining it is rather hard and because people should read it for themselves and I don’t want to spoil it. I loved this book; I am so happy Fforde is back.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Douglas Adams

This book is fun. It is a murder mystery where the murder itself is essentially a red herring. It plays with a lot of interesting science fiction concepts and weaves them together into the format of a detective novel, but the mystery was never really what you thought it was. I am given to understand that parts of this started as a Dr. Who script, and that makes sense. Adams’s wit is on full display here, making for a book that is a lot of fun to read, but it is much more tightly plotted than anything else I’ve read by him. That is not to say you could actually call it tightly plotted, it is only so in respect to Adams’s larger body of work. Still, it is quite an enjoyable read and I’ll finish up with its sequel sooner rather than later.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams

I’ve got a full post about how much I like this story. Read that, I don’t have anything to add here.