What I Read July 2019

I burned through a couple of books to start the month, then got stuck in the cycle I’ve been in all summer: starting books only to lose interest about a quarter of the way through. At some point I am going to finish a deluge of books, but it isn’t going to be in August.

The Elf Queen of Shannara

Terry Brooks

The Heritage of Shannara series has not held up anywhere near as well as I’d hoped it would. I recalled really liking this one, but it feels incredibly rushed on a reread. You can’t complain about Brooks being slow paced. This starts with Wren Ohmsford taking up her quest to find the missing Elves. After some misadventures, she finally finds a lead in Tiger Ty, a member of the tribe of elves that rides around on giant birds. He leads her to the deadly island where the elves have moved and she has to get them to safety before the volcano on this island erupts. With the elves she learns both their history and her own and what is required to bring them back to the Four Lands.

This book feels like it was almost completely made up of storytelling shortcuts. The adventure just keeps going even as it adds characters and concepts, so there is no nuance to any of it. Everyone is exactly what they appear to be. Characters are introduced to play roles and there is nothing more to them. There is some excellent action scenes here, and the plot sounds a lot more interesting than it seems when reading it. My disappointment is mostly from wanting something different from this movie than I wanted.

The Talismans of Shannara

Terry Brooks

I have maybe been too hard on this series. This fourth book wraps things up nicely; The Heritage of Shannara is a largely okay series of adventures. I admire the structure of the series. Instead of following the usual linear narrative, this book cordons off its stories. The first book introduces its three sets of heroes, and mostly tells the story of brothers Par and Coll Ohmsford. Instead of continuing their story in the second book, it switches to Walker Boh for his mostly unrelated adventure. The third book then followed Wren on her adventure. Then here is the final book to wrap it all up, and finish the story of Par and Coll. There is a chapter or two in each book to check in on some of the other characters, and a few characters make appearances in the others’ stories, but it mostly tells three unrelated stories that all tie together in a climactic fourth book.

I like that structure. I like at least parts of the plots of each book. I just don’t think Terry Brooks’ writing is for me anymore. Instead of going back and revisit and finish the entire Shannara series, I think I might just box up what I have and put them away. It feels better to leave my memories where they are.

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spied Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb

Sam Kean

This book was really interesting. It deals with nuclear espionage during WWII. Because near the start of WWII the Allies were convinced that not only was Germany working on an atom bomb, but that they were close to discovering one. So while the Manhattan Project geared up, a small group of spies went to great lengths to stop the Nazis.

There is a lot of understandable desperation on display; stuff like filling planes with explosives and flying them into enemy encampments where nuclear experiments were thought to be occurring. They ran several missions into Norway to stop the production of heavy water used in Nazi experiments, only for those efforts to turn into a series of distastrous misadventures. There are a lot of interesting characters, like the Joliot-Curie’s, who seemed to keep missing out on big scientific discoveries and who worked in France to help delay the Nazis and Moe Berg, a MLB catcher turned would be assassin. What is most striking is just how haphazard and desperate all of these efforts were. It is hard to judge how effective anything was. It is clear that the Nazis never really got all that close to producing a bomb, but whether that was due to espionage and sabotage or just due to their own failures. Still, this book makes gives an enthralling look at a part of WWII that is rarely discussed.

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Dora and the Lost City of Gold

I am way too old to have memories of Dora the Explorer, but I am unfortunately old enough to have memories of babysitting children who are now teenagers who likely have fond memories of Dora the Explorer. For some reason, I found myself wandering into the theater to watch the live action adaptation of a cartoon for toddlers. I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. It is still a movie for kids, this time more for the pre-teen set, kids that still have that naivety of youth and are anticipating/dreading high school. This move is just about perfect for them; both thoroughly fun and entertaining and entirely wholesome.

The first place this movie shines is with its entirely overqualified cast. Saving the kids for a second, this is a movie with spots for Michael Pena, Eva Longoria, Benecio Del Toro and Danny Trejo. These adults all have small roles, but they make the most of their short time. The most meaningful presences there are Pena and Longoria, who play Dora’s parents with a just the right amount of encouragement and concern. Dora, played by Isabella Moner, is the engine that drives this movie. She is perpetually upbeat, but not stupid. The movie does a great job of showing her competence in the jungle before uprooting her for the city and having her look like a doof. Then, it flips it again to put her back in the jungle. The other kids, Diego and two new characters (I guess, I’m not a Dora expert) are pretty fun. Diego is Dora after having the exuberance sanded off by years with the more cynical city folks. Randy is a somewhat dorky everyman, who knows the tropes of the adventure stories Dora riffs on. And Sammy is the classic alpha smart girl, who is simultaneously jealous, dismissive and competitive with Dora. It isn’t anything new or groundbreaking, but it is fun. Finally, there is Eugenio Derbez, who guides/is guided by Dora through the middle portion of the movie. He is not quite incompetent but also not quite adept, and mostly serves as the butt of jokes for the kids.

Some of the most fun parts of Dora are how the movie adapts the specific hallmarks of the show into this live action format. There is a big change of perspective scene near the end that plays with this, but there are also moments throughout that do similar things. Dora’s talking to the camera asking 3 year olds to count to 4 is now her talking to her audience (it is unclear if she actually has one) for youtube videos she is making. Boots the monkey is just a monkey, though he is a horrible CGI creation rather than an actual monkey. Inexplicably, Swiper is a talking CGI fox who just so happens to be working for the bad guys. It is weird, but it somehow works.

The plot is just complex enough. To start with, Dora’s parents are sending her to live with her cousin in civilization after she grew up in the jungle with them, a pair of college educated archaeologist. This is both for her development and because they think they found a lost city and can’t take her with them. So the first act has Dora trying to adapt to live in the big city. Then she loses contact with her parents, and is kidnapped during a trip to the museum. Along with her is her group of not quite friends. From there, they try to find Dora’s parents, escape the dangerous jungle and find the lost city. It nails that Indiana Jones like personal bickering while dealing with external threats tone perfectly. It is really just a fun adventure.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is not going to knock anyone’s socks off. It is a perfectly good movie, especially for adults with kids the age of the intended audience of this movie. It is entertaining enough that they will not be bored and good enough that the kids will hopefully be enthralled. There is something to say about selling nostalgia to progressively younger movie watchers, as usually they are selling the entertainment of youth back to adults, here they are selling memories of babyhood viewing to pre-teens, but I am not the one to talk about that.

***1/2

The Kitchen

I wanted to like The Kitchen movie more. I really wish it was better. However, The Kitchen is too muddled and rushed to really be worth seeing. That is despite strong performances from all three of its main characters.

Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elizabeth Moss play the wives of mobsters who in the opening scene of the movie are caught and sent to jail. The family agrees to take care of them, that promise turns out to be less than expected mostly thanks to the general fecklessness of the men. So the three women start to take things into their own hands. It starts with taking protection money for local businesses, but starts to expand from there. Things really take off when Domhnall Gleeson shows up. He had to skip town after doing a hit, but is back now that things have cooled. He also has a thing for Elizabeth Moss and no problem being their muscle. The three women not only survive after taking over, they thrive.

They do so in different ways. McCarthy takes charge and mostly keeps her quiet PTA mom persona, but is clearly more in control. The abused Moss almost gleefully takes to her new power, reveling in her role as the wild card. And Haddish stops playing the mousey little wife starts to show her real intelligence and ambition.

There is a lot of stuff that looks good on paper. It is like a lesser Scorsese mob movie in some ways. Good performances from its central characters. It just doesn’t know what to do with them. We get their evolution, but we don’t really see what that means every day for them. We don’t really know what they were like before. We don’t know what they are like after, for that matter. The movie refuses to show things. Moss was abused by her husband, but the movie doesn’t show it, it shows the aftermath and you have to draw conclusions. It will show a lot of murders, but not that. It is one thing to have twists and revelations, this movie makes every development feel like a twist by not giving the viewer enough information to understand the situation.

One problem with the movie is that it doesn’t seem to know what to do with the fact that for all their power, the women are becoming monstrous. That is no different from their husbands or the people they interact with, but the movie refuses to reckon with this idea. McCarthy’s father starts very opposed to what they are doing. He is the only person in the movie that seems to display any discomfort with crime or murder. Other than blood being gross, I guess. The problem is the movie raises these concerns; in part by having her dad brings them up. We, as viewers, want to celebrate the held down Moss finding some control of her life. But are we not to feel disturbed that she shows her growing confidence by killing people? Maybe I misread the movie, I was watching it as something with one foot in realism, but the way it deals with things is more of a cartoon.

The Kitchen just feels like a big a missed opportunity. Some refinement to the themes or a better focus could have turned into a really good mob movie. Instead, we got this scattered mess

**

What I Watched July 2019

Movies

Point Blank – A “buddy” action movie with Anthony Mackie and Frank Grillo. It is fine. ***

Toy Story 4 – read review here.

Yesterday – read review here.

Late Night read review here.

Men in Black: International – read review here.

Spider-Man: Far From Home – read review here.

Stuber – read review here.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – read review here.

Megamind – This is a fairly solid Dreamworks movie from a decade or so ago. It is a superhero movie, where the Superman analogue uses a plot by the titular villain to fake his death and retire. Megamind has no idea how to deal with success and tries to create a new hero to fight. It isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it is reasonably fun. ***1/2

Secret Obsession – A woman is attacked, but manages to escape with her life. Unfortunately, she has amnesia about what happened. She goes home with her husband, which builds to a thriller about who attacked her. It is fine, if nonsensical. **1/2

The Lion Kingread review here.

Jack of All Trades – A documentary about baseball cards, but also about one of the director reconnecting with his dad. It goes some interesting places, but it fails to really fully tell either story. ***

Peterloo – Maybe this would be different if I was more familiar with the historical event it is based on, but I didn’t much care for this. It is dry and, frankly, boring. I’m not asking for action or anything; I want characters that stand out in some way or more interesting dialogue. Its fine, I guess, but I didn’t much care for it. **1/2

Inglourious Basterds – I believe that this is Tarantino’s masterpiece. I guess most of his movies could be called masterpieces, but in my opinion this movie is his best. From that opening scene, where Hans Landa shows the viewer exactly who he is as he slowly closes the net around a French farmer and the Jewish family hiding under the floorboards, to the violent finale, this movie is impossible to look away from. *****

Under the Silver Lake – I hated this movie. It is a kind of paranoid mystery starring a 20 something Los Angeles douche. It just never did anything to get me to care about this creep or the mystery he was investigating. *1/2

Pulp Fiction – I went back to this movie after seeing Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood to see if it still holds up. It does. I think Tarantino has really improved as a filmmaker since this movie, but this is still a lot of fun to watch. *****

TV

Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein – This is a perfect piece of entertainment. It is full on nonsense. David Harbour plays David Harbour III, as well as his father David Harbour, Jr. As the son he looks into what happened to his celebrated actor father, while watching a play his father produced for TV about Frankenstein. The play is weird, the dad is weird, David is surprised by literally everything, Alfred Molina shows up for some reason, and maybe there was a murder. I don’t know why Netflix made this 30 minutes of weirdness, but my only complaint is that it is only 30 minutes long.

Stranger Things 3 – I feel like a show I like this much should inspire more from me in a review. I loved season 3; it turned itself into a big 80’s action movie instead of the smaller scale sci-fi thriller the first season was. It is not unlike the transformation of Rambo after First Blood. Or maybe Alien to Aliens. It is still a fun synthesis of tons of 80’s classics that also manages to create some very interesting and compelling characters. It is a show that knows exactly what it is and executes that perfectly. This show is great.

Always Sunny 13 – This show has still got it. The struggles without a full season of Dennis are dealt with perfectly. I liked the remake episode on the plane. I liked Mindy Kaling as the equally awful but actually competent Dennis replacement. This show is just so good.

3 Below Part 2 – I’ve really been enjoying these Arcadia shows. This one feels kind of truncated, like it was supposed to run another season but had to ramp up to the end here. Still, I liked it a lot.

Daredevil S3 – I genuinely hated the second season of Daredevil. I guess The Punisher was fine, but all the Hand/Stick/Elektra/Ninja stuff fell completely flat. Luckily, all that crap is gone. Instead, we get all new crap. Okay, not really. Instead, we get mostly a retread of the first season. The first season was really good so that isn’t really a bad thing. It can’t quite recapture that magic, though. Mostly because to keep this plot going for the full 13 hours, a lot of characters have to be really stupid to keep Kingpin around and not in jail. It is fine.

Kakugurui XX – I can’t explain why I watched the first season of this, let alone a second. It is an anime set in a high school with all kinds of rituals set up around weird gambling games. The fly in the ointment is newcomer Yumeko, who loves to gamble, but only for the thrill of it. She doesn’t seem to care if she wins or loses. After her arrival last season, the Student Council President calls an election, which brings in a whole lot of poorly explained intrigue. Also, votes in the election are actually casino chips. The show is here just for weird gambles and Yumeko getting sexually aroused from the act of gambling.

The Boys – Seriously, I am writing a full post about his show. Not because it is the best or most interesting thing on TV, but because I have things to say about this. I guess it is worth watching.

Magnum PI S2 – So Magnum is back on Amazon Prime to stream, and I am going to try to get through it. I love this show; it uses its setting to work with a variety of tones and styles for mysteries. You get sun drenched but tonally dark noirs, thrillers building out of the characters’ Vietnam history, and jokey mysteries just messing around in the Hawaiian surf. The fact that it all feels of a piece is amazing, and a testament to the cast. This is just a really good show that should be even more well remembered than it is.

White Dragon – This could be called “Also, A White Guy was There.” No offense to John Simm, who is fine as the protagonist, but his character is completely unnecessary. He gets a message from his wife, who is later reported killed in Hong Kong. Once there, he learns that his wife had another family. He and her other husband reluctantly team up to find who killed their wife and why. It is a pretty bog standard thriller.

Costume Quest – Hey Costume Quest was fun little game, an RPG where changing Halloween costumes was akin to change class. This is a fun little cartoon, though since every day can’t be Halloween it kind of strains the premise a little bit. Still, it is fine.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

The best parts of the Fast & Furious franchise have always been the nonsense parts. That is why no one cared about the first couple of entries in the series; they were at least partly trying to be movies. The problem with the last couple of movies isn’t that there was too much nonsense, it was that too much of the nonsense wasn’t as fun as it should be. This was a much bigger problem with Fate of the Furious than Furious 7 (hey, rankings are fun, see the bottom of this post), but some unwieldiness has been creeping into the series since just after Fast & Furious 6. This spin-off is the most ludicrous film in the series yet, but thanks to its two stars and some fun sequences, it also manages to be one of the best in the series.

Two stars is kind of misleading, as this is really a movie with three. Yes, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham’s characters are named in the title, but Vanessa Kirby is just as integral to the film as the two of them and is a more than credible action star. But back to the named stars. This movie makes me fear for future F&F movies, as the two most charismatic performers in the series are now confined to their own spin-off. I am very on the record for my love of The Rock, and this movie plays hard into his best traits. I am also a big fan of Jason Statham. They are both playing essentially to type, but they are fun in their usual personas. The movie doesn’t quite sell their animosity to alliance as well as it could, but if you want me to not like a buddy spy movie starring The Rock and Jason Statham you are going to be disappointed. Last but not least is Idris Elba as the villain Brixton Lore, a cybernetically enhanced super-soldier.

The plot is pure nonsense, but really no more nonsensical than the average James Bond or Mission Impossible movie. There is a deadly virus, which for complicated reasons Kirby’s Hattie Shaw injects into herself to keep it away from Lore. Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw are dispatched to find her. Soon they do and the three of them have to go on the run from Lore. What sets it apart is just how ridiculous it lets itself be as they solve these problems. The Rock jumps from a high rise to chase villains repelling down. Statham drives a Lamborghini underneath two trucks. There are many other things that I really don’t want to spoil, from cameos to actions bits. Suffice to say, Hobbs & Shaw is stuff with amazing, fun, nonsensical stuff.

The dialogue, mostly, is the same kind of ridiculous fun. They try really hard for banter between Rock and Statham, but their hyper-masculine posturing has fun elements. It still manages to feel like a Fast & Furious movie. Cars play an outsized role in everything. It all comes down to family, though the movie seems to forget that Statham’s character had a brother.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw is everything I’ve liked from the recent F&F movies. It is big, dumb, explosive fun. It is a tone that few other movies manage at all. Bring on Hobbs & Shaw 2.

9. 2 Fast 2 Furious

8. Fast & Furious

7. Fate of the Furious

6. Fast & Furious 3: Tokyo Drift

5. The Fast & the Furious

4. Furious 7

3. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

2. Fast & Furious 6

1. Fast 5

Now Playing July 2019

Finished

Crash Bandicoot 2 – I didn’t exactly beat it, but I am done with it.

Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage – I finished it off. It is a good time, but a step down from the first game.

Ongoing

Judgment – I like playing Yakuza as essentially a PI. I need to play this game more.

Sword Coast Legends – I tried to get back into this. Something about it is not quite right with, it feels like one of the old Black Isle Infinity Engine games that is just not put together correctly. I am still working through the early portions, though, so maybe it gets better. I don’t know if I will have time to stick with it.

Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth – I just don’t know with this game. All of the elements seem like something I would like, but for some reason it is pushing all the wrong buttons. Battles seem to take too long, with the hard hitting Etrian Odyssey style not mixing well with Persona’s knock-down critical hits. I hope I am just getting to the point when it all clicks together and becomes its own game instead of an inelegant mix of two others, but I am becoming increasingly concerned that that moment is not coming.

Shadows of Destiny ‒ I only played the opening this, but I am intrigued by it. It is an early PS2 game where the player time travels to prevent his own murder. I’ve only got through the first little prologue cycle, but it is very interesting. It is also apparently pretty short, so I see myself getting through this pretty quickly. If I find the time to get back to it at all, that is.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West – I played through a chapter of this as well. I got this game a few years ago after hearing some good things from acquaintances. I like it, but I guess not enough to stick with it for more than a chapter or two. The dual protagonist gameplay is good. It isn’t really an escort game, except the parts where it is, but it does give the player two characters to guide through the game. I feel like it is just a little bit from clicking all the time. I’m not sure I’ll be getting back to it anytime soon, but I am not really giving up on the game either.

Upcoming

Suikoden II – I am really feeling a desire to replay one of my favorite all-time games. We’ll see if I can actually make the time to do so.

Crash Bandicoot 3 and Spyro The Dragon 3 – I’ll get back to the final games in these trilogies sooner or later.

Paper Mario: Color Splash – I don’t know why I’ve never played this. I need to fix that.

Dragon Quest XI – I’ve let this sit for too long. I was loving it when I started playing it a few months ago, then I got distracted and never really got back to it. It is likely in line after Judgment.

Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood

Every new Quentin Tarantino movie is an event. His reputation has taken something of a hit over the last year or two, but none of that has anything to do with the quality of his films. Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is simultaneously something of a culmination of all of his previous movies and a departure from them. For the bulk of its nearly three hour run-time, it eschews the violence that tends to permeate Tarantino’s work, as well as his distinctive dialogue rhythms. It still feels very much like a Tarantino movie. (By the way, I am going to end I am going to include a ranking because everyone loves rankings.) Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is somewhat difficult movie to explain, but it is certainly a movie worth watching.

This movie is a pure hangout movie; a movie you just want to put on to hang out in the world and with the characters. Many Tarantino movies are hangout movies to some extent, but none are so thoroughly as Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. It seems almost plotless, though that isn’t really accurate the movie does feature a lot of its stars just going about their business. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton takes a meeting with an oily producer, played by Al Pacino, then works a day on the set of a western TV show. Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth drives Rick around and fixes his antenna. He also picks up a hitchhiker who leads him on an adventure to Spahn Ranch, where he comes face to face with the Manson Family. Then there is a thread of Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, who goes about her business, doing a little shopping and, in one of the standout sequences of the movie, sitting anonymous in a theater taking in the audience reactions to recent movie she was in.

It is also a movie about Hollywood mythmaking. Aside from the real actors portrayed in the film, there are its two leads: former TV cowboy Rick Dalton whose transition from TV to movies failed and he is scared he is on his way out of the industry, as well as his stunt double and gopher Cliff Booth. Most of the action is handled by Booth, while Dalton is something of a mess. Dalton’s primary concern seems to be his personal myth. He is concerned about what playing the villain of the week on various TV shows will do to his leading man credibility and the public’s perception of him and his most famous character Jake Cahill. He knows losing fake fights makes him seem like less of a tough guy. It is all about managing how he is perceived. Cliff, for all that he is the doer of the pair, has his own concerns with perception. While Rick’s star might be fading, Cliff is basically unemployable because of his reputation. There are rumors that he killed his wife, and the movie deliberately leaves the truth of those rumors ambiguous. He also remembers getting fired off of the set of The Green Hornet after fighting with Bruce Lee. While the event occurred, the truth of Booth’s recollection is suspect. Then there are the movie’s run ins with actual historical figures. Sharon Tate gets the bulk of the screen time, but others appear as well. Other than the ending, the scene that most plays into the overt mythmaking nature of the film is when Robbie as Tate is in the theater watching actual Sharon Tate on screen in The Wrecking Crew. It puts the artificiality of it all in the viewers face. This, however, is a movie that revels in that artificiality. What is important isn’t what actually happened, but having fun imagining your version. Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton didn’t appear in The Great Escape, Steve McQueen did. And not Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, actual Steve McQueen. Hollywood is a place where you can make whatever story you want happen, so why shouldn’t a movie do that. It feels like what Tarantino has been playing with in his last four or so movies, at least.

Saying more feels like it would spoiling the events of the movie. This isn’t really a movie that depends on being unspoiled, but I am tempted to run down a list of my favorite scenes rather than reviewing it. I guess I’ll finish by saying the movie has a very good dog and Pitt and DiCaprio are charming.

*****

Rankings

9. Death Proof

8. Reservoir Dogs

7. Django Unchained

6. Pulp Fiction

5. The Hateful Eight

4. Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2

3. Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

2. Jackie Brown

1. Inglourious Basterds

Crash 2 and Spyro 2

I have more to say about the slightly disappointing Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage than I do about Crash Bandicoot 2. Crash Bandicoot 2 is more Crash Bandicoot. Nearly none of the problems I had with the first game are solved. The game adds a slide/crawl ability, but it doesn’t really change much. The most positive change is that it opens up the level selection, from going one level at a time in a strictly linear path to giving the player five or so to choose from at a time. It is an improvement, making it less likely that a player will get stuck for an extended time on one challenge. My major problems remain. I find Crash’s jump trajectory hard to parse and hard to control. It isn’t so bad in the side scrolling sections, but when going into or out of the screen, I can’t tell where I am going to land. There is some of this problem that is skill, and I am honestly not interested in honing that skill, but I have played a lot of platformers and I would say that I am generally pretty good at them. Crash Bandicoot 2 just feels sloppy. I want to specifically call out the chase segments, which were showstoppers back in the day, but I do not have a lot of patience for the trial and error they require since it is almost impossible to see upcoming obstacles. It feels like the hoverbike sequence in Battletoads. So I got about halfway through Crash Bandicoot 2 before deciding that my time was much better spent elsewhere.

While Crash 2 gave players more of the same, though it did add a new playable character, Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage feels like it did more to evolve. The problem is that that evolution did nothing to improve the game. I would argue that the new stuff actually made the game worse than its predecessor. And that more to evolve is only relative to Crash Bandicoot 2, for the most part Spyro 2 is just more Spyro as well.

Without being too harsh on what is still essentially a very good game from two decades ago, Spyro 2 is a bit let down after playing the first Spyro, a game that I am increasingly of the opinion is a masterpiece. Spyro 2 adds gameplay complexity to it simpler predecessor, but that complexity doesn’t make the game better, it only makes it somewhat more tedious.

For the most part, Spyro 2 is the same as the first game in the series. The new stuff is around the edges, clear attempts to make the game deeper and more complex, but they mostly succeed in making the game kind of a drag at times. The first game was mostly environmental puzzles; you explore the worlds and find all the hidden gems, with dragons generally functioning as checkpoints and the occasion egg thief chase to spice things up. Spyro 2 still has the gems, but it replaces the dragons with orbs. Some orbs are simply hidden around the stages. Those are great. They play into Spyro’s strengths, which are largely how enjoyable it is to just explore as the punky purple dragon. More of them are hidden behind some sort of minigame and that is where the game loses me.

It isn’t that all of those minigames are bad; it is that they are inconsistent. Inconsistent in quality and inconsistent in difficulty. That isn’t helped by the new skills that Spyro learns along the way. I was inordinately annoyed at how I earned those new abilities. The fact that those new skills are slowly doled out as the game goes on is as much a problem with presentation as conception. Does it make sense that someone teaches Spyro to swim? I guess so, but why does it have to in such a perfunctory manner. Similarly, why does he need to learn to climb when all he has to is jump on the wall and climb. That is mostly a presentation problem; instead of giving the player a decent explanation for Spyro’s new powers, it treats it as a joke. The minigames work kind of the same way. Some of them work, like flying along a set path or finding lost baby turtles. Others, like playing hockey or a shooting gallery, are less fun. As the game goes on, the frustrating parts start to overwhelm the fun parts, culminating in a final boss battle that feels like it goes on forever.

Spyro 2 is still a pretty good game; all of the stuff I didn’t like is on the margins. You can beat the game without completing many, if any, of the frustrating challenges. But the first Spyro is the only game I’ve gotten a platinum trophy in; I felt compelled to experience everything that game had to offer. With Spyro 2, despite really enjoying it, I couldn’t wait to be done with it by the time I got to the end.

I’ve got another month or so break before I come back to these two series, but I am eager to see how things go in their third outings.

The Lion King

I didn’t like The Lion King (2019). My complaints are essentially the same I’ve had with other ‘live action’ remakes of Disney’s animated movies like Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book. Not only is there nothing about the movie to recommend it over the original, it add feels saggy and tame on its own merits.

Everyone knows The Lion King. It is the tale of cat Hamlet, a young prince must loses his father and fights for his throne against his treacherous uncle. The story works in the broad strokes as well as it ever did. There is still a big break in the middle of the movie that doesn’t quite work. But it still does a good job of setting up its characters and their philosophies and having them come into conflict. It is too bad there is a strictly better version of this movie that already exists.

There is a clip running around comparing the new version of “Hakuna Matata” with the old one, with the comparisons illustrating just how lacking the new one is. That is illustrative of the entire movie. The animated version has a lot of energy, a lot of coming because it is not limited by what actual animals can do. They could draw a lion doing anything, like swinging on a vine or standing on pyramid of singing animals. Real, or realistically animated, animals cannot do that. So instead of anything interesting, characters just walk around while singing. It feels like all the personality is gone. It is hard to create human emotion in a realistic cat face, let alone a warthog. The hyenas all look the same. The baboon mystic Rafiki can no longer do kung fu, Timon can no longer hula dance. Nothing interesting can happen. In making the lions look real, it makes it a lot harder to tell Scar and Simba apart in their big climactic fight scene. It is just two tawny beasts in the dark batting at each other.

The problem with this movie is that unless you are completely enamored by the digital effects wizardry, there is absolutely nothing about that makes it worth watching over the original. It is the Lion King, with less personality, less energy, just simply less. The movie tries to find more for its female characters to do, but it mostly fails. Giving Nala and Sarabi a few more lines really changes nothing. The only thing that I would even consider calling an improvement is Billy Eichner as Timon, who makes him a little more acid that Nathan Lane did. But even then, Lane was great.

The Lion King has made a bunch of money for Disney. So we’ll get more of these. And I’m part of the problem, I guess, because I went to see it. But I am tapping out. I’ve enjoyed exactly one of these remakes and The Lion King is likely the last one I’ll see in a theater.

**

Toy Story 4

I was not too excited for Toy Story 4. It seemed really unnecessary to me. That is not usually a term I like to throw at movies; what movie is necessary when you get down to it, but it seemed to me that Toy Story 3 really wrapped things up for these characters and there really wasn’t anywhere to go. I am not sure Toy Story 4 changed my mind, but it showed that, if it were somehow in doubt, Pixar can still delight with fun and emotionally resonant movies that work for people of all ages.

Toy Story 4 deals with endings in a different way than Toy Story 3. Toy Story 3 was more about mortality. With Andy grown, the toy characters’ lives were essentially over. They were being boxed up and placed in the attic, never to be played with again. Or at least not until Andy had kids of his own. While the toys spend the movie reconciling themselves to their fate, including a harrowing scene in an incinerator, the movie becomes about Andy passing the torch to Bonnie. They are her toys now, she decides how to play with them.

The themes of Toy Story 4 mostly seem to overlap with those in Toy Story 2 and 3 without actually duplicating them. It feels a much more gentle movie than the previous entries in some ways. The villain of this movie is reminiscent of Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2. Like Pete, Gabby Gabby is a toy who has never had a kid, who has never been played with. Pete had turned bitter about it, tying his worth to his status as a mint in box toy. Gabby, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to be played with, and she lets her desire to be useful justify some abhorrent actions. Ultimately, the movie finds empathy for Gabby it’s refreshing and satisfying conclusion. That a toy is meant to be with its kid idea echoes TS2 without just retelling that story. It also echoes TS3 in how it deals with toys moving on from owners who have grown up.

One problem I had with this movie is how much most of the returning cast gets sidelined. That is a difficulty in doing sequels; if you do not add new characters, then it all feels the same, but if you do the new guys can overwhelm the old favorites. Toy Story 4 definitely goes the latter route. Woody is the star, and Buzz is given a decently large subplot, but most of the rest is focused on newcomers. And yes, I am including Bo Peep with the newcomers, as she is essentially a new character here. Forky is the most interesting and somewhat terrifying new addition. He is a toy Bonnie made in kindergarten, constructed out of a pile of trash. He sees himself as trash and wants nothing more than to return to the trash. Once Woody takes the time to talk with him and learn his motivations, they come to an understanding. Forky never really quite gets to seeing himself as a toy, but his motivations ultimately align with those of Woody. Bo Peep gets a significant reimaging here. In previous Toy Story movies, though not 3, she was mostly just a concerned voice. She was kind of Woody’s love interest, but that thread was never really explored. Here, she takes on a more active role and is essentially a new character. Part of the that is what happened between when she was separated from the rest of the toys and now, and part of that is just actually making her a realized character. She works amazingly well as a foil and counterpart to Woody. Sure, she is now a badass survivalist, but she shares Woody’s loyalty and sense of responsibility. Making her work as a character was essential to making the biggest moments of the movie, especially the ending, work and Pixar really made her work.

The thing is, even though I would call this a more definitive ending than in Toy Story 3 in some ways, it also leaves many avenues for future Toy Story movies, should Pixar wish to pursue them. The less enticing option is to follow Woody’s new adventures as a lost toy, as he helps other toys find homes. While I can imagine a full on Western themed Toy Story movie using this set up with Woody as the central figure, that route is less enticing because we have four movies of Woody’s story already. Let him have his ending and let’s see what a Toy Story movie looks like focused on Buzz or Jessie or any of the rest of Bonnie’s toys. Toy Story 4 is mid-tier Pixar. That still means the movie is hitting a high bar of quality. As much as I prefer it when Pixar is exploring new stories, if putting out a Toy Story movie every half decade is part of the deal, then I am all for it.

****1/2