What I Watched May 2019

Movies:

Knocking Down the House – This pretty solid political documentary managed to catch lightning in a bottle. It focused on several left-leaning primary campaigns in the 2016 election, all of which save one ended in defeat for the candidate they were following, save one. That one, though, was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. So it follows the earnestness of these progressive primary challenges and just so happens to catch a surprising political upset and the beginning of a political star. It is very interesting, which is what you want out of a documentary. ****

The Hustle – read review here. **1/2

Long Shot – read review here. ****

The Bank Job – A solid Jason Statham vehicle that is based on a true story, though I think that is loose here. Someone is blackmailing the royal family with nude photos, stored in a deposit box at a bank. Jason Statham is hired to rob the bank, but he knows nothing of this other motive; he’s in it because he needs the money. What follows is a solid heist movie. ***

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile – This movie isn’t perfect, but I liked it. Zac Efron does a great job as Bundy, and the movie wisely does not focus on his crimes, but more on his eventual capture. It lets it focus, for a while at least, more on Lily Collins’s character as she deals with not knowing whether the man she is living with is actually a serial killer or if it is a case of mistaken identity. It doesn’t shy away from what Ted Bundy was, either. It is right in the title. Still, it doesn’t quite have anything to say other than what the title says. ***

Wine Country – A sort of hang out movie with a great cast of SNL alums. It is never quite as good as you want it to be, mostly because there are a few too many characters for any of them to get the room they need, but it is still a largely really enjoyable movie with some big laughs. ****

Detective Pikachu – read review here. ****

John Wick 3 – read review here. *****

Tolkien – read review here. ***1/2

Aladdin – read review here. ****

Rim of the World – This movie from McG is trying desperately to ape kids movies from the 80s and it mostly succeeds. It doesn’t succeed on an E.T. level, or even a Gremlins level, but it manages something around Explorers. It is fine, I could see a kid of the right age really latching on to it, but it is a mess in some ways. Still, I enjoyed it. ***

See You Yesterday – This movie is excellent. It is a time travel movie that starts out fooling you into believing you are in for a romp, with a Michael J. Fox cameo that echoes Back to the Future. It then turns into something altogether more thoughtful. The two protagonists have created a working time machine. Unfortunately, they have to test it out to save one of the character’s brother from getting shot by police. So they keep looping the same afternoon, trying to stop it and things keep getting worse before somewhat salvaging the situation. Despite that premise, it never gets too heavy. It is just really good. ****

Take Me Home Tonight – I’ve seen most of this movie before, but I forgot that I actually kind of really like it. I like Topher Grace, and [other guy] is a fun as well. It has some misses and some lulls, but overall I’ve found it to be very enjoyable. ***½

The Last Summer – It’s fine. This is a teen romantic comedy about how a bunch of kids spend their last summer before college. It spreads its attention really thin amongst a lot of characters, but manages to be just on the charming side of things. ***

American Experience: The Island Murder – This is truly an American story. A woman reports being raped and beaten, so the authorities round up the nearest brown people they can find and accuse them of the crime. Even as the criminality of the white family involved becomes not just apparent but blatant, the prosecutors, hounded by the Navy brass who are involved, just keep on going after the obvious scapegoats, despite no evidence and their involvement and plenty of evidence corroborating their alibi. What could be more American? ***

Always Be My Maybe – A pretty solid rom-com starring Ali Wong and Randall Park as high school sweethearts who have grown apart. But they end up meeting back up and a rom-com happens. It is pretty fun, with a great Keanu Reeves appearance. It is just a solid execution of a formula. ****

TV:

Dead to Me S1 – The cast is great. The premise is a little too soapy for me. The twists just get a little too ridiculous. I did like the slow reveal of just how awful James Marsden’s character is, as he comes off reasonable early on and each subsequent time he shows up he looks worse and worse. The heightened stuff in this show doesn’t work that well for me. I still liked the show, but only liked it, not loved it.

The Punisher S2 – There is a really good Assault on Precinct 13 episode early on in the second season of the Punisher. You might as well stop watching there, because little past that is worthwhile. I didn’t hate it, but I really only kept going out of some masochistic desire to watch all of the Netflix Marvel stuff. Only Daredevil S3 and Jessica Jones S3 remain.

Doom Patrol S1 – This show needs its own post. I loved it. I loved every weird, nonsensical moment of it. It is a show about a superhero team of fundamentally broken characters, all in different ways. Their struggles are reflected in their powers. The stand out, to me at least, is Robotman. Cliff Steele was a famous race car driver who was seemingly killed, along with his wife and daughter, in an accident. Except the Chief saved his brain and put it in a robot body. He has super strength and invulnerability, but can’t feel anything. He has also become just as inhuman on the outside as he feels on the inside. Because Cliff Steele was kind of a jerk. He is not really central to the conflict of the season, but he is the driving force on the team. The rest are content with or at least accepting of their exile from the world, but Cliff can’t take it. He wants to do things. He may be trying to be a better person, even though he might not be a person anymore. He is also filled with self-loathing, and maybe does not feel he deserves to live. I kind of love it.

Catch-22 – This show is kind of stuck between two modes. It is both a satire and a straight drama, but it doesn’t quite manage to square its two different genres. Which is a shame, because each of them is great. The heightened stuff is marvelous, with the amoral [], the officers sole focus on getting promotions. The weird bureaucratic decisions made all over the place and the slow break down of the protagonist as he is trapped forever running dangerous bombing missions. Then there is the true drama that deals with the horrors of war that also works, when the two are juxtaposed it all kind of falls apart. I wish it worked better, because this is so close to being something I really loved, but it misses just enough to leave me a little disappointed.

The Flash S5 – I want to do a post going into all of the superhero TV shows, a genre that is kind of getting away from me, so I am not going to say much about this year’s season of The Flash (or the other DC CW shows). I thought it was a step up from the last season. The show still seems to always want to lean into its weaknesses, but this season had some good stuff.

Supergirl S4 – Supergirl bit off more than it could chew early on, but I think it managed to kind of bring things in for a landing. I am glad it didn’t let [bad guy] get redemption. He didn’t deserve it. I really liked the Dreamer and Brainy stuff. I hope the show doesn’t turn Lena into a villain. Solid, but flawed.

Legends of Tomorrow S4 – It couldn’t keep up the excellence of Season 3, but the drop off was slight. This show, despite no longer really being based on anything that resembles the comics origins of a few of the characters, is the best superhero show on (broadcast) tv. I can’t wait for next season.

Brooklyn 99 S6 – Each additional episode of Brooklyn 99 feels like an unexpected gift. I don’t know that this season was anything exceptional, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina S2 – I think this show could benefit from shorter episodes. There is a lot it does well. Honestly, it does almost everything well. But at the end of each episode I feel kind of exhausted. It always feels like a little too much, and that it is a little too slowly paced. The cast is great, and I really enjoyed this season, but it feels like it could be tightened up a little bit. It is no Netflix Marvel show when it comes to bloat, and the overall stories are solid, but if you are not in it for a long haul binge, it is kind of tough on an episode to episode watch.

Bob’s Burgers S9 – I don’t know that I have much to say about Bob’s Burgers. The show is great, it continues to be great. There were some really excellent episodes this season, and some that were merely fine. This show is one of my favorites ever, and though it has been running for a long time it hasn’t started slipping.

Ken Burns Civil War – A solid, long recounting of the major events of the Civil War. It is a Ken Burns documentary, you should know what you are getting. The biggest problem with it is how prominently it features talking head Shelby Foote, who is a nonsense lost-causer. His presence provides “balance” by having someone who is wrong and loves the Confederacy. Otherwise, I really enjoyed it.

She-Ra S2 – More She-Ra goodness, but only a little more. After spending the first season getting to know the world and characters, the second season has started to dig more deeply into those characters. There just aren’t enough episodes here.

Roman Empire: The Mad Empire – A sort of half-drama, half-historical reenactment of the reign of Caligula. It is fine, the history part kind of hampered by the fact that most commonly used historical sources are not especially reliable, which makes telling the “true” story completely impossible. Still, it is fine.

White Gold S2 – I wasn’t a huge fan of the first season of this show, but I think it improved a lot this time around, even if it wasn’t quite as focused. Maybe I just knew a little more of what to expect from it this time around. The problem is that I don’t really like any of the characters. It is certainly possible to have a show were all the characters are monsters, look at Always Sunny, but this seems like it kind of wants you to care about them. Still, it is pretty funny.

Tuca & Bertie S1 – This might just be a little too weird for me. There are a lot of great moments, and it handles some heavy issues well, but it is just strange in a way that doesn’t quite work for me. I don’t know what to say. It is a great show; give it a shot. But one of its strengths is having a specific voice and tone which may not work for everyone.

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Godzilla King of the Monsters

I learned in the last couple weeks that more people than I realized didn’t like the 2014 Godzilla. I liked it then and I still like it now. People complained about how little actual Godzilla action we got in that movie, but the amount matched up well with a lot of old Godzilla movies and what we did get was amazing. I heard the same complaint about not enough of the monsters leveled at Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which is how I know that some people will never be satisfied. There are flaws with Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but not enough of the monsters is not one of them. As a longtime fan of Godzilla, I loved it. Instead of trying to make Godzilla serious or scientific, the movie is just an old style Godzilla movie with a ludicrous budget behind it. It is big, dumb and loud and I loved every second of it.

Getting the bad out of the way first; nothing any of the people do in this movie makes much sense or is interesting at all. It is a lot of overqualified actors spouting nonsense and giving the viewer a lens through which to watch a handful of giant monsters duke it out. Secret government organization Monarch is fighting against the military’s desire to destroy Godzilla and the other monsters that have been found. This threat is taken very seriously despite the fact that in 65 years of Godzilla movies militaries have killed exactly 0 Godzillas. Meanwhile, Charles Dance and his group of eco-terrorists want to wake the monsters and basically destroy humanity. Caught in the middle is a family consisting of Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown and Kyle Chandler, who have a device that can kind of control the monsters. Sally Hawkins is there, so are O’Shea Jackson, Jr. and Bradley Whitford. The human who matters is Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa, who reveres Godzilla and seems to have some understanding of how the newly named Titans work.

The real draw are the monsters, and those are great. King of the Monsters loosely follows the outline of Ghidorah: The Three Headed monster, one of my favorite Godzilla movies. It keeps the same four main monsters from that movie. You have Godzilla and Ghidorah, of course, but there are also the other two monsters featured in that movie: Rodan and Mothra. Mothra is a Godzilla staple, Rodan was one in the 1960s. I would hesitate to say that any of the four have been reimagined for this movie, though I do have things to say about some changes to Mothra, but they have been updated. Something that this movie, the previous one and Kong: Skull Island have all done well is give each monster personality. They aren’t just big CGI nothings, they are characters. Godzilla acts the same here as he did in the 2014 movie. He is a brute; he fights mean. Instead of being more dinosaur-like, in these movies he reminds me of a kind of scaly bear. With Ghidorah they did an excellent job of making each of his three heads somewhat distinct. They all act a little different from the others. Ghidorah is cruel and sadistic. While Godzilla fights mean, Ghidorah is simply mean on his own. Rodan is probably the least distinct of the big four, but he has his own air of petty cruelty. Rodan is kind of a classic bully. He appears to get pleasure out of taking down the tiny fighter jets flying around; he’s not destroying them because they attacked him, but because they can. Rodan also crumples like a wet bag when faced with a challenge. The monster that got the most significant update is Mothra. Mothra still does the life cycle, starting as a worm like larva before cocooning and then hatching into a giant moth. Here, though, Mothra is not just a moth, she is also kind of a wasp or hornet. Mothra is also the only monster that appears to be benevolent to humanity.

The monsters fight. And they are great fights. Godzilla and Ghirodah go three rounds, and Mothra and Rodan get in there for some serious action as well. The only part where the movie struggles with this is that three of the four monsters can fly, with only Godzilla stuck on the ground. While this is used against him, it does make for the occasional unevenness in the fight scenes. I loved all of the fights. It delivered everything I wanted from them.

I haven’t really described anything that could be called plot, because there really isn’t anything worth describing. The most interesting part of the actual story is when King of the Monsters subverts the original Godzilla. In that movie, a Dr. Serizawa develops an oxygen destroyer that kills Godzilla. In this movie, Dr. Serizawa fights to save Godzilla, eventually helping him recover from an oxygen destroyer. While his sacrifice is complete nonsense, it is interesting how here he gives his life to save Godzilla rather than destroy him.

The movie left me numbed, but euphoric. It was thrilling and exhausting. I can see the inanity of the plot turning some people off, but it is exactly the big budget Godzilla movie that I have always wanted.

****

Yakuza 6 The Song of Life

Yakuza 6 was conceived and sold as the end of the Kazuma Kiryu story. And it is that; it is supposed to be the last time we see the Dragon of Dojima in a starring role in the series and it really does close out his story. I have some spoilery thoughts about how it does that which will be at the end of this post, but it is an ending. The Song of Life is a strange game for the send of the series iconic hero, as it removes him from nearly every character he has built up a relationship with over the course of the series.

Before I dig into the story, a few words about the gameplay, which is solid. I first experienced this new Yakuza engine with Kiwami 2, and this feels much the same way. The game is a little more fluid than it was before, moving more seamlessly into and out of fights with roving bands of thugs that accost Kiryu in the streets.

One thing that is absolutely disappointing with Yakuza 6 is how little the series usual cast has to do. Yes, it stars Kiryu and nearly every game in the series has introduced a full new cast to spend time with. But the series has built up quite the stable of regulars and most of them are MIA for the bulk of the game. If you played Yakuza 0 and love Majima, this is not the game for you. I don’t know that he even speaks a line. The same goes for Saejima, a co-protagonist of Yakuza 4 and 5. He appears briefly at the end and does nothing. Daigo Dojima is absent as well. Haruka Sawamura, who is vital to the plot of the game, is barely there outside of some bookend scenes. Kiryu’s detective friend Date makes the occasional appearance, and Akiyama at least gets to show up occasionally, but they are tertiary here, at best. Maybe it’s just me, but I expected a game that is saying farewell to its hero to let him interact a little more with all of the allies he’s built up over the course of the previous six games.

Still, the game fills in with some really good new characters. I have long been a defender of Yakuza 3, and one of the things I loved about it was Kiryu meeting a yakuza family that initially knew nothing about him, only to win the group over just by being awesome. Yakuza 6 does the same thing, and I think does it a little better. Instead of a family of just three, this one is a little larger and feels a little more fully formed. Plus, they are led by Beat Takeshi. Kiryu shows up in Onomichi looking for clues about what happened to Haruka. AMong the first people he encounters is the abrasive Nagumo. Soon, he meets, and fights, all four of the underlings of the Hirose family; Nagumo, Matsunaga, Tagashira and Yuta. Nagumo and Yuta quickly become close allies. It follows a familiar set up, with first they fight Kiryu, then they grow to respect him, then almost worship him. By the time you get to the end and a former foe is agreeing to go on what is essentially a suicide mission with Kiryu, it all feels just perfect. Which is what makes the ending such a downer.

Here is my big problem with the ending: it is not the ending to the game that preceded it. It is a perfectly understandable ending, and fits with Kiryu’s characters, but it flies in the face of the lessons he supposedly learned during the preceding 40 or so hours of game. It is also clumsy and occasionally aggravating. I am going to have to really spoil things to explicate this, so consider yourself warned. Yakuza 6 ends with the apparent death of Kiryu. This is a fine ending, though a little disappointing given the perpetrator. Still, Kazuma Kiryu shot down while protecting his Haruka is a perfect way for him to go out. After 20 minutes or so of ending, the other shoe drops. Kiryu is not dead. He survived the gunshots. Instead, he took a deal from the government to cover up certain revelations during the last act of the game and has to disappear forever. So he does, leaving his family behind. And that is where the game loses me. Kiryu deciding or discovering that his family is safer without him around and then leaving to keep them safe is a very Kiryu thing to do. But the game just spent it whole story showing why that is a bad idea. Again, the relationships between fathers and children is the heart of the game. And the game shows a multitude of ways in which they work and they don’t, and one big thing, outlined by Kiryu in a letter to Daigo at the end, is that a father needs to be there for his family. The game opens with Kiryu, in order to be with Haruka and the kids from the orphanage, going to jail for his Yakuza past. The idea is that he’ll serve his time and be allowed to be with them as himself. When this attempt to deflect attention fails and people are paying attention to Haruka, she leaves the orphanage as well, because the girl with the adopted yakuza dad draws too much negative attention. She doesn’t tell Kiryu this, so when he gets out and find her gone he sets off looking for her, and finds her in a coma, the victim of a hit and run, and mother of a small child. The father of that child is revealed to be a low level yakuza member, though like Kiryu a good guy.

Along with several other plot threads, the clear message here, to me at least, is that Kiryu going to jail to protect Haruka didn’t work. He wanted her out of the yakuza or yakuza adjacent life, but she ended up in it anyway. Again, the most important thing about being a father, according to Kiryu, is being there for your kids. He shows this by not being there for his kids. If the lesson of the game was that Kiryu’s yakuza past will always catch up to him and the only way to keep Haruka safe is to leave her, then okay. She’s grown by this point anyway. But the game teaches the exact opposite lesson, that bad things are coming no matter what and he needs to be there. Plus, Haruka takes over the orphanage with her (ex?) yakuza beau, so everything is right back where it started. The whole thing just didn’t work for me. That missed note at the end kind of soured me on what was otherwise an excellent game.

I’ll still play Yakuza games going forward, and am interested to see who will take over has the protagonist. Will it focus on Saejima and Majima? Akiyama? Those are good options who have been playable in the past, but they are all also kind of old. Maybe Yuta will take over, but if so, why get rid of Kiryu. I know the next game set in Kamurocho is this summer’s Judgment, which is about a detective. I’m not sure if any Yakuza characters show up.

Dark Phoenix

Frankly, Dark Phoenix isn’t a very interesting movie. It is a failure, but not an egregious one. It feels compromised from the ground up, but with solid, interesting takes on various characters that are ground up and cut apart into meaninglessness. However, the core of the story comes through, even it if feels truncated and the ending takes a weird turn.

Dark Phoenix is most interesting to me as the end of a movie universe that has meant a lot to me over the years. I am a comic fan now, but I really wasn’t when X-Men came out in 1999. My relation to the X-Men movies in some ways mirrors my relation to superhero comics. I liked superheroes, and likely would have been a comic fan had the opportunity presented itself before the movies, but I lived in something of a comics desert, with the only place to purchase comics within fifty miles being a lonely, sporadically refreshed spinner rack at the local grocery store. I did purchase some comics from there, spurred on by a brief infatuation with Archie Comics Sonic the Hedgehog comic (that is a post for another day), but I never really got into superheroes.

That is not to say I didn’t have some experience with superheroes or the X-Men, that experience just didn’t come from comics. Like many people who were seven in 1992, I was a huge fan of the cartoon. That show was a gateway, a glimpse into a larger world. Even without reading the comics, I knew somethings were missing with that show, but it still set my expectations for what the X-Men should be, especially when it comes to the make-up of the team. That early 90’s team is the iconic one to me. While I don’t think there is a member of that team I didn’t like, my favorite was always Beast. And the fact that Gambit is not an integral part of the team in other media was a surprise to learn. That wasn’t my only source of superhero knowledge. My best friend was comics fan, and he had these coffee table books that went into the history of comics characters. I remember he had one about Batman and one about Marvel Comics. At his house, sitting on the floor in the tiny closet of a room his family had set up as a game room, I would read these summaries of stories and character histories while we took turns playing Super Nintendo games. They are some of my happiest childhood memories.

I really had a thing for those sorts of books. I routinely checked out a similar book about Godzilla from the school library. I had seen three or four Godzilla movies, But this book went into great (and occasionally incorrect) detail about all the movies and various monsters that Godzilla would face off against. Finally seeing the movies was a bit of a disappointment, because they didn’t quite match how I imagined they all looked. With the superhero books, it was an amazing glimpse into a world I couldn’t actually see. There was something called the “Mutant Massacre” and I didn’t know most of the details, but it sounded amazing.

So I was perfectly primed for the movie when I was 14. I liked the X-Men, but I didn’t know the comics well enough to be concerned about whether or not the movie was accurate. Honestly, at the time the only superhero movies I knew were Batman movies, so it wasn’t like I had something else to set expectations by. A lot of stuff now about X-Men makes me roll my eyes a little bit. The jabs at colorful costumes or the fact that it isn’t actually very good, you know, those sorts of things. But as a 14 year old, it hit me perfectly. It was cool, which was the most important thing for a new teenager. It didn’t have the X-Man I most identified with, the monstrous yet erudite Beast, but the rest was good enough that I didn’t care. The scene where Magneto points all the guns back at the cops blew my mind. My enthusiasm didn’t wane. I bought the movie on VHS, one of my first such purchases, and completely dissected it, searching the background for hints at characters that weren’t in the movie. Needless to say, I was excited for the sequel. And the sequel worked. Sure, it turned into even more of the Wolverine show, but Wolverine was great so what was the problem?

I think the “geek” movies of the early 2000’s don’t get the respect they deserve. Everyone probably feels that about the movies they fell in love with when they were teenagers. But starting in 1999 with The Phantom Menace and The Matrix, the next six or so years were filled with movies that just worked for me. The best remembered, and likely best all-around from the time, were Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. I loved them. I never hated the Star Wars prequels and I didn’t lose any of my excitement when a new one was coming out. Let’s not forget Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. But my favorites at the time were the X-Men movies. Recently, in a pile of papers, I found a list I made, likely around 2004, of the best movie trilogies. I like to make lists, so this seems like something I would have done instead of paying attention in some high school class. Star Wars topped the list, with Lord of the Rings and Back to the Future also near the top. There was a note on the page, though, reminding myself to revise the list when X-Men 3 came out, because based on the strength of the first two movies it was a contender for the top spot.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand was in some ways the end of my close relationship with the X-Men movie franchise, but not because I was disappointed in it. I convinced myself it was good for a long time. No, it is more that movie kind of marks a sort of childhood’s end for me. That was a long time coming, as I was twenty when that movie came out, but age wasn’t really the dividing line. It was that X-Men 3 was the last movie I went to see with my high school friends. We, in many groups and variations, went to see plenty of movies together. The most memorable for me were the times when we got as big a group of us together as possible, piled into my parents’ full-size Chevy van and went to see a movie. I’ll never forget the night we watched the Matrix Reloaded on DVD at my friend’s house, then all went together to see The Matrix: Revolutions. The silent, angry car ride home was excruciating. We all hated the movie, but none of us wanted to talk about it. It was crushing and we all just sullenly fumed as I drove us home. One might think that the Last Stand would have had a similar result. An unsafe number of teenagers, or recently turned not teenagers, stuffed into a van (close to a dozen in a vehicle that seats seven) making the thirty minute ride to and from the theater. But it did not. That movie got a range of reactions and we had a pretty good discussion about it on the ride home. No, it didn’t really do a great job with the Phoenix story. Yes, Kelsey Grammar as the Beast was great. We stood in the driveway talking for more than an hour after we got back. I think we all subconsciously knew that this was something like the end of an era, that we would never be together and be the people we in high school again. We were already dispersed to different colleges and these get togethers were growing increasingly infrequent. But as long as we stood there talking about whether The Last Stand was actually going to be the last stand, the longer our group lasted. But, as all things must, that night ended.

That was also the end of that take on the X-Men. Despite my claims of childhood’s end, before the next movie came out, the desultory X-Men Origins, I got into comics. With my initial love of the X-Men, the first thing I did was . . . acquire a full run of .pdfs of all X-Men comics and read them. But as my reading branched out, I moved away from the superhero team that was a favorite of my childhood. In fact, I came to realize that the characters a DC resonated more strongly with me than most of Marvel’s. When First Class came out in 2011, I actually kind of cared that they were bungling a whole handful of characters. (Really, that movie is super overrated and in many places quite bad). I would still go see X-Men movies, but I was no longer really a fan. Days of Future Past is likely the best of the bunch, but I haven’t returned to it like I did with the first two movies. Honestly, I didn’t think about the X-Men movies much at all, at least until Disney bought Fox and I realized that this movie franchise that has been there for so long was going away for good.

Dark Phoenix does not feel like a movie designed to be the end of a blockbuster movie franchise. The Last Stand did. Logan did. Dark Phoenix, for much of its runtime, feels like just another chapter. For one thing, we haven’t gotten to know this team of X-Men well enough to care. Which is really the biggest flaw with the movie. The fact that it is a low key character focused take that was hastily retrofitted into being a big action film is a problem, but that still stems out of the fact that how are we to know that Jean has changed when we don’t know Jean. For better or worse, the movies since First Class have focused on the trio of Xavier, Magneto and Mystique, with Beast always there in the periphery. This new crew of Nightcrawler, Cyclops, Jean and Storm just showed up last movie and were at best tertiary players in that movie. Also, Quicksilver is there, mostly for one cool action scene a movie and nothing else. There is what appears is supposed to be a big character moment for Nightcrawler in the final act, but it is hard to know when we don’t know Nightcrawler. Maybe Storm makes a big decision about midway, but we don’t know Storm well enough to tell. The only one it is possible to get a read on is Cyclops, and that is because he doesn’t change. Meanwhile, Dark Phoenix does almost nothing with Magneto or Mystique, and Beast’s arc is underwritten. That leaves only Xavier, and this time we never really get inside his head.

Dark Phoenix is the most disappointing kind of bad; the kind of bad when you can feel that people were really trying and really cared (maybe not Jennifer Lawrence). There is fun to be had with a big, dumb goofy movie. Something like Gods of Egypt that isn’t good, but there is at least fun spectacle to entertain while pointing to the badness. Dark Phoenix seems like it cares and is much too dour to have a good time with.

Now the X-Men have been hoovered up in that corporate megalith Disney, something we have been assured is a good thing because now they can be in the same mega-franchise as the Avengers. Maybe it will turn out to be a good thing for X-Men movies. While I think there is a lot of potential in the young actors cast to play the X-Men, a completely new take is likely for the best. Maybe someone will get characters besides Xavier, Magneto and Wolverine “right.” There are a lot that haven’t really gotten their due. I would love to see a movie that actually does something with Storm, or a movie that gets the swashbuckling nature of Nightcrawler. Colossus and Kitty Pryde. Rogue. Emma Frost. Gambit. There are a ton of characters that have never gotten a once of focus because it has all been about Xavier, Magneto and Wolverine; even when the movies are adapting stories that originally focused on other characters. Only Dark Phoenix broke from that, putting the focus on Jean Grey, but failing to flesh her out enough before her change into Phoenix for that change to have any meaning.

The X-Men movies were only intermittently good, but I’ll miss them nonetheless.

**1/2

Booksmart

I finally got the chance to see Booksmart a few days ago and I’m glad I did because it is now my favorite movie of the year so far. It is the latest high school coming of age movie, this time focusing on two young women rather than the usual young men as they

The comparison I’ve seen made a lot is between Booksmart and Superbad. It is in some ways apt, as they both deal in large part with similar themes. Both follow two life-long friends on an attempt to get to a party at the tail end of their time in high school. While the macro view might make the two movies seem very similar, they are very different on the micro level. They certainly don’t feel the same. I would also argue that Booksmart is much more ambitious in its plotting and its filmmaking than Superbad ever even thought of being.

The move rests on the charisma and chemistry between the stars, Beanie Feldstein as the driven Molly and Kaitlyn Dever as the more withdrawn Amy. They are perfect. The rest of the cast is solid as well, with excellent pinch hitting performances from Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte and Jessica Williams and some great stuff from other students, especially Skyler Gisondo and Billie Lourd.

Booksmart does feature a lot of tropes familiar to this sort of movie, but it kind of back burners them to the more personal drama between the two friends. Both friends have partners that they would like to hook up with, but that is clear secondary desire to their other goals. A lot of the movie is more about the personal journeys of Molly and Amy.

Booksmart is also a remarkably empathetic movie. While characters are shown being cruel, it is generally out of the thoughtlessness and not malice. It is movie that emphasizes consideration of other people’s situation. This is true of nearly every character in the movie. Molly starts the movie as more than a little judgmental, and the film makes it clear that this is out of fear. She is preemptively rejecting people before they reject her. Which causes them to reject her. The movie doesn’t make a villain out of anybody. The kids who are mean to Molly are only doing so because she is almost deliberately abrasive. That doesn’t make them right, but it adds context. Even the two teachers that play a role are more than just teachers. The supportive English teacher is shown to make some bad decisions and the struggling principal is really struggling.

It also does a great job of letting the other characters have their stories going on that only briefly intersect with Molly and Amy. The big party they are trying to get to is not the only party going on. It is a big school and not everyone wants that party experience. The theater kids are having their own murder mystery party, with very well developed roles for each guest. The rich kids are having a party on their parent’s yacht. The roles are fluid, people move from one party to another as the night goes on.

The film is also visually inventive. There are a handful of standout scenes. One is kind of a standard drug trip the ends up with the characters imagining themselves as Barbie dolls. Another is a pool scene, where one of the protagonists swims underwater in the midst of a bunch of rambunctious teens.

Booksmart is incredibly smart, empathetic and interesting. It is a movie that creates comedy through its characters, rather than have characters that exist as a vehicle for its comedy, making it much more real and believable. It is equal parts profane and thoughtful. Booksmart is just really, really good.

*****

What I Read May 2019

Again, only two books in May, though one of them was a two volume manga collection that took some time to read. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to the pace I expect of myself. Usually when I get bogged down like this I find some short pulps to kick my finished book rate up a couple of notches. Instead of doing that, I am currently bogged down in several longer tomes.

The Clocks

Agatha Christie

This is ostensibly another entry in Christie’s Poirot series, but it reads more like one of her generally lackluster spy novels rather than her excellent mysteries. It is a mystery, but the spy stuff creeps in by the end and that doesn’t work at all.

The mystery is that an unidentified man turns up dead in the home of a blind woman, along with a dozen clocks. This was discovered by a typist who was hired to do work for the blind woman, except that the blind woman had not hired her. The police, and a bystander who happened to get involved, are stumped. One of them has the bright idea to go to an old detective friend of his, who it turns out is Poirot. Poirot is determined to solve the case without leaving his home, so he suggests some inquiries that should be made by the investigators.

Those inquiries involve the temp agency the typist came from and all the neighbors who live around the blind woman. In the usual mystery fashion, an array of lies and unknown connections are discovered, before Poirot is able to deduce who is responsible for the killing, or by that point killings, and why. There is another mystery to be solved as well, as a lot of the apparent red herrings point to a communist connection, that the bystander, who is also a spy, eventually works out. The mystery of the clocks is pretty enjoyable, the spy stuff is underbaked and kind of pointless.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Hayao Miyazaki

Thanks to a recent episode of Retronauts, I decided to treat myself to the manga version of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I know the movie version well and knew there was a manga, but I never really touched it. Though I did own the first volume, which I picked up at a used book store for a couple of bucks and then just left sitting on the shelf for a decade. While I initially looked into completing the set from the volume I already had, it turned out to be cheaper to get the collector’s edition from Viz Media.

The two versions of the story share a lot of similarities, they also end up being quite different. And the manga version is a much darker, more pessimistic story than the already somewhat somber movie. Nausicaa takes place in a world that has already been destroyed in an even referred to as the “Seven Days of Fire,” which appears to be a sort of nuclear holocaust. What has sprung up in the aftermath is a toxic jungle of fungi and giant insects that, as is revealed early on, is purifying out the toxins from the earth.

That is pretty much where the movie ends. Young Nausicaa learns the secret of the jungle and averts a war between two larger countries in her tiny country. During the conflict, one of the deadly living weapons is brought back to life, and Nausicaa only barely manages to stop the giant pill bug looking Ohmu from killing everybody. That particular conflict doesn’t happen in the manga, but the general outline of events does.

This is where the manga’s bone deep pessimism creeps in. Nausicaa is drawn from her home to fight a war, and has to witness as cycles of violence repeat themselves. The jungle may be trying to heal the world, but humanity is not done killing it yet. She consistently wins the admiration and respect of the people she meets, but it is never enough to avert more killing. This builds until the end of the manga, when Nausicaa finds the secret behind the world. She learns that the jungle is a man-made creation and that once it runs its course humanity will be reborn. Except doing so will kill whatever humanity is still alive at that point. This entity responsible for overseeing this plan has consistently pushed for the escalation of wars, to push the spread of the jungle at the rate it desires. The manga leaves off on a somewhat positive note that is undercut by the unlikeliness of that positivity holding. I think it is worth noting that the movie happened while the manga was still in its early volumes, with years between the first and last in the manga. It appears that whatever hope Miyazaki had when he started the project and made the movie had evaporated by the time he finished. I can’t say this change was unjustified.

Now Playing May 2019

Beaten

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax – I think I called this game beaten years ago, but all I really beat was the Persona 4 side of the story mode. I recently decided to go back and finish up the other side of the story mode, the one featuring the Persona 3 characters. It is fine. I never quite connected with the P4: Arena fighting games. They look amazing, and have a kind of Marvel vs Capcom big flashy feel, but somehow I’ve never really found them that engaging. Fighting games are a perpetual dalliance of mine, and games that lend themselves to a little button mashing rather than being super technical are usually closer to my tastes. The P4 games do that, but there is a lot of technique under the surface that if I ever understood it, I don’t now. That said, I don’t necessarily dislike the games. I just find them kind of forgettable.

The story mode is about as good as a Pesona 3 & 4 mash up could be. It does a solid job of bringing back the characters and unlike in Persona Q, it lets the Persona 3 cast age, instead of catching them in some nonexistent moment in that game when the whole gang’s together. Here, the characters have moved on, in some ways. The fact that the game has to keep them focused on shadow hunting means that their futures have been a little stunted. Still, it is fun to see a somewhat more mature Junpei, or to see Yukari put all of her skills to use. And to see Ken all grown up. I am not as eager as I was a half-decade ago to return to these characters. When I was really into Persona 3 and 4, I wanted nothing more than some adventures with those casts (I say despite never finishing Persona 3: The Answer). Now, coming off of enjoying but not especially connecting with Persona 5, they feel a little like something I have outgrown. I do intend to replay Persona 4 someday, maybe I’ll find out if that is the case or not then. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is a really good fighting game containing a pretty good Persona story. I’m glad I went back and saw most of the rest of what it had to offer.

Ongoing

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey – I am nearing the end on this. It is one of the best original DS games and it really picks up in intensity near the end. The combat system does feel a lot less refined than that found in later Shin Megami Tensei games, and some previous Shin Megami Tensei games. It is so simple, with it almost forcing the player to keep demons that share alignment with the player in their party and hoping that you get demons that are the right alignment and with acceptable weaknesses for whatever boss is coming up. I am going to take a break from this for Persona Q2, but I’ll get back to it after. Maybe I’ll do both if I can get my regular DS back from my brother after half a decade.

Yakuza 6 – I should have this beaten before too long. I intended to replay Yakuza’s 3-5 before starting this, but with Judgment coming out in June and this just sitting there, looking me in the face unplayed, I felt like I had to fire it up. I am glad I did. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the Yakuza formula. Replays of the three PS3 games are still on the docket.

Upcoming

Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth – I may be out of Etrian Odyssey games on the 3DS, and new 3DS games in general, but that is not stopping me from getting on this last 3DS first person dungeon crawling hurrah. I liked the first Persona Q just fine, even if it flattened out all the characters to fit into the format and into the constraints of a story with that many characters. I expect this one to be even worse in that regard, but one last romp with characters I love from Persona 4 and Persona 3, with characters from Persona 5 there as well, is hard to pass up. Especially when it is bundled with the map drawing excellence of Etrian Odyssey.

Horizon: Zero Dawn – This is only on the list because I am writing this blog post so late. There was a PSN sale and I couldn’t resist picking this up. I know I’ve got another PS4 game coming in late June and an increasingly hefty backlog of titles to play, but the price was good and I’ve heard good things about this game. So once I finish Yakuza 6, I am going to try this game out. Dragon Quest 11, I’ll get back to you eventually.

Crash Bandicoot/Spyro the Dragon – I had some interest in the Spyro the Dragon trilogy remaster, but when I checked prices I found it was cheaper to buy it bundled with the Crash Bandicoot remaster. So I am going to relive my teen years but replay both series of platformer classics.

Judgment – It hits too late for me to likely get to spend that much time with it, but I’ve got this preordered and I am really looking forward to it. I’ll likely love it if it has even 75% of Yakuza’s charm.

Aladdin Review

I’ve found Disney’s live action adaptations of their animated movies to run from mediocre to downright bad. Still, I somehow find myself going to see them. The advertising around Aladdin did not do it any favors, so I went in to see it not expecting much. That is despite my love of Guy Ritchie movies and me thinking that Aladdin is one of the absolute best of Disney’s animated movies. The 2019 version of Aladdin was a pleasant surprise, because it turns out it is actually pretty great.

There is no getting around this fact; the animated version is the superior movie. It is nimbler and more energetic. While there are improvements to this version, like having more than one woman with a speaking role, it loses a little of the light on its feet snappiness of the original. However, if you can accept that this is a somewhat lesser version of the movie, there is still a lot of fun to be had.

The part of the movie that is drawing the greatest criticism online is Will Smith as the genie. The two apparently objectionable parts of his portrayal are the look and simply an unfavorable comparison to Robin Williams. I kind of agree that the movie never quite gets the look of the genie right. I don’t know what they could have done better, I think the mind just rejects a real live blue person. There is nothing really wrong with it, it just doesn’t look great. The performance is something else entirely. I like it, when they let Will Smith be Will Smith. WHen he is copying Williams, it doesn’t really work, when he has more freedom to do his own thing, Smith’s charm shines through. Fortunately, the movie has a lot more of the latter.

While they do slow things down a little bit, most of the rest of the changes are for the good, narratively. The Sultan’s character has been given a near complete overhaul. He was essentially a child in the animated movie, both small of stature and small of mind. Here, he has been reimagined as a scared old man. It adds a layer to his dealings with Princess Jasmine. He is trying to marry her because he is afraid of leaving her alone. His fear allows him to be led by Jafar, at least in some things. Jasmine is made a stronger character, with more to her than just that desire to see life outside of the palace. She has studied and made herself capable of being a strong ruler should the opportunity present itself. Jafar has been changed pretty significantly, and for the better in my book. They made him, like Aladdin, a former “street rat.” He is a man that was born with nothing and has risen to be the second most powerful man in Agrabah. It creates a strong parallel between him and Aladdin that deepens Aladdin’s struggles with the power the genie gives him and the conflict between the two of them.

This is a still a musical, and while the musical numbers do not quite match the original, they are solid, with one exception. “Friend Like Me” is a dud in this version. It is still a fun song, but this version has none of the magic of the original. Still, “One Jump Ahead,” “Prince Ali,” and “A Whole New World” are still really good. The new song’s heart is in the right place, but it sticks out like a sore thumb. Especially the second time it shows up.

While Aladdin may lack the energy of the original, it is one of the few of these adaptations that feels like it has any at all. Many of the rest fell somewhat perfunctory; this one at least feels like it is trying. Like the animated version, it is a crowd pleasing delight.

****1/2

Tolkien Review

Tolkien is a perfectly fine biopic that tries to do too much and ends up not doing most of it as well as it could have. The movie tells the story of a young JRR Tolkien, up through his experiences in WWI, largely following three threads. The first is the bond Tolkien formed with some of his school friends that last until the first world war. Another is a love story between Tolkien and his lifelong love. Last, the movie spends time with Tolkien’s experience during WWI.

The movie cuts back and forth between a young Tolkien and Tolkien during the war. The bulk of the movie follows Tolkien as he ages from child through his time at university. First, Tolkien and his mother and brother find out that his father has died and they are forced to move from the country to the city. Then, further tragedy strikes as Tolkien’s mother dies. He and his brother go to live as boarders with a rich old woman while they attend school. Another boarder living there is Edith Bratt, who soon forms a connection with Tolkien. After an initially rough time fitting in, Tolkien also forms close bonds with a trio of other boys at school, forming what they call a fellowship that lasts even when they go to seperate universities.

Interspersed with Tolkien growing up are scenes of Tolkien in the trenches of WW1. He is suffering from an illness, and looking for his friend Geoffrey Smith. Smith has stopped responding to letters, and Tolkien is afraid he might have been killed. So he treks across the front looking for him, followed by his batman, a Private named Sam. Tolkien frequently nearly collapsed, and has fantastical hallucinations.

While good, the movie bit off a little more than it could chew. There is likely a really entertaining version of this movie that focuses on the romance, or on Tolkien’s love of languages, or on his connections with his school friends. This one tries to do all of those things, and ends up shortchanging most of them. The only one that comes across truly strongly is him with his childhood friends. They call themselves the TCBS, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. Still, even with that thread it struggles to give clarity to the relationships between the boys. While it does manage to differentiate the boys, the focus on them shifts making it hard to get a read on them at times.

The romance feels truncated, but it works. It helps that Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins are both great. It does a good job of showing why they would connect, but it does a lesser job of bridging things after the inevitable struggles happen. The WWI stuff is the clumsiest part of the movie, mostly because tries the hardest to connect his experiences to the Lord of the Rings.

The Middle Earth books are the specter that hovers over this movie, even if it doesn’t cover the part of Tolkien’s life when he wrote those stories, other than in a coda near the end. It tries too hard to relate all of Tolkien’s experiences to what he would later write in his stories. Some of it works, it only makes sense that writer’s experiences would influence his works, but it frequently tries too hard. His visions and hallucinations during the war are the most egregious example.

Tolkien is more good than bad. It isn’t anything world changing or amazing. It is simply a solidly executed, well shot and well acted, biopic.

***1/2