Battlefield 1

I bought Battlefield 1 during the recent PSN sale. That is likely a surprise to people who know me. I have long had little regard for first person shooters, and have never had much of an interest at all in multiplayer shooters. I was drawn to this particular game for its World War 1 setting. That was enough to get me to fork over the $10 it cost to give it a try.

My take on this game is going to be completely unfair. I feel I have to acknowledge that upfront. The Battlefield series is popular for its multiplayer; the single player campaigns exist and that is about it. So going into Battlefield to play the single player is pretty much by definition missing the point. I am not much of a multiplayer guy. I’ll play some fighting games and party games, but playing with other people is not something I really do. Even Monster Hunter, a favorite of mine, is usually a solo experience for me. I will play it online, but it makes it feel like a chore sometimes. I mostly just enjoy to play by myself and at my own pace. That is what I wanted out of Battlefield 1; to play through some WWI battles by myself. Technically, it delivered.

Battlefield 1 also did a good job of showing the breadth of the First World War. Its splintered single player campaigns range from France to Italy to Arabia. You experience early tank fighting, biplane dogfights, pitched battles on seafronts and mountainsides. It gives the player a little bit of everything. The problem is that almost none of it is any fun. Take the thing I was most excited for: the airplanes. The initial control scheme for the planes is insane. Or at least, it felt insane for someone who does not primarily play first person shooters. After thinking about it for a while, I think the control scheme does make sense when thinking about it through the lens of a shooter. For someone used to controlling an on screen character or vehicle through any other lens it is awkward at best. Luckily, the controls are remappable. Once you find something that works, it becomes tolerable. Frustrating, but tolerable. The game gives essentially two missions in the plane; one big assault defending bombers attacking a base, other defending London from a German bombing raid. Once they get going, they can be fun, but the game does not really explain the parameters.

The game also loves to put the player into situations that, in the story of the campaign, call for stealth. However, the game does not really give the player the tools to play stealthily. I am not sure the game really intends for the player to be stealthy. The most interesting one is the Arabian set section of the campaign. The player has to send three messages from three separate bases. The game hints at sneaking in, but the game gives few sneaking tools. In set up, it feels like a mission out of Metal Gear Solid 5. In execution, it shows how great a game Metal Gear Solid 5 was. Part of the problem is on me: I am not a huge fan of shooting. If the game gives me a peaceful option, I will take that option. Battlefield 1 suggests such options, then pushes the player to go in guns blazing.

Maybe that is why the Italian campaign was the most satisfying. The Italian campaign is the most straightforward of the bunch. It puts the player in a pitched battle, shooting his way up a mountain. Eventually, you are searching for your lost brother, but it is mostly just a series of stages for shooting everything that moves. It works. It is fun to go from bunker to bunker, tearing through enemy troops. Any time the games tries something more complex with its single player missions, it stumbles, but those straightforward shooting missions were solid.

I haven’t said much about the stories, because there is nothing much to say. They range from bland to forgettable, with the one interesting one being the biplane story. It is interesting because it tries to bring in some unreliable narrator stuff that only really shows up there and only serves to undercut the most fun story they put together. There isn’t much to say.

Honestly, I am a little disappointed in myself for buying this game. I have pretty much stopped playing games that are mostly about killing other people. That is something I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with as I’ve grown older. It is not that I begrudge anyone else their enjoyment of shooters or anything similar, but I personally don’t really enjoy them. It is kind of arbitrary; I love the Yakuza games and they are incredibly violent. But most of the fights in the Yakuza series ostensibly leave the losers alive. Even something like Metal Gear Solid, which features a lot of killing, at least mostly leaves it up to the player on whether to kill people or not. Shooter, on the other hand, don’t really have options. You shoot things. I bought Battlefield 1 for its novel setting. I thought that maybe that would be enough to get me into a shooter. It didn’t. I am ready to take another decade long break from the genre.

Ford v. Ferrari

For a movie titled Ford v. Ferrari, Ferrari has very little presence in the film. Enzo Ferrari appears, as do some Ferrari racers, but this is a movie about Ford, and a movie about Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles.

Wisely, the movie doesn’t really try to portray Ford as the good guys. Henry Ford II is a blustering blowhard. He wants to be on top of the car game, but doesn’t seem to have any idea how to get there, other than to throw money at everything. At the start of the movie, Ford is in a bad place. Executive Lee Iacocca comes up with a plan to drive interest in the company’s vehicles; buy Ferrari. They make sexy racing cars, with their designs and reputation Ford could get back on top. Unfortunately, their trip to Italy to make their sales pitch ends with Ferrari insulting the Ford Company and Henry Ford II personally. In a fit of pique, Henry Ford II, who was not all in on the Ferrari plan, decides that Ford is going to build a race car to beat Ferrari at the 24 hours of Le Mans. To do so, he hires Carroll Shelby, the only American racer to win the race.

Taking an already existing prototype, Shelby tries to create a race car that can beat Ferrari. To this, he brings on the best driver he knows, Ken Miles. Together, they make the car and try to work the kinks out of it, all while dealing with recalcitrance and pushback from the suits at Ford. Eventually, they get the car to Le Mans, and Miles gets his chance to race.

This is a very meat and potatoes movie. It rests on the sturdy shoulders of Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Bale has the showier role. He is the bigger personality; the one actually behind the wheel of the car. Damon gets to do a lot of yelling at jerks in suits. They are both excellent. The movie is full of moments of just them being great. Whether it is Damon plotting a way to get a douchey executive out of the way so he can talk Ford II into leaving him in charge, or if it Bale and Damon fighting with groceries on the front lawn, or Bale explaining the intricacies of racing to his son, the two of them are excellent. Those two performances are more than enough to carry the movie.

Then there are the racing scenes. Specifically, the climax of the movie at Le Mans. The movie does an excellent job of conveying the speed and danger of driving in one of these races. It does a great job of showing the feel of the race. Le Mans is a grueling endurance test and the movie does a great job of showing just how hard it is to keep going for the whole 24 hours. And in showing how good Shelby and Miles are at racing.

I am not sure what the movie is saying with its primary players. One can look at the process of designing the car as the process of movie making. Shelby, the director, and his team are the ones with the ideas and vision, but Ford, the studio, is the one with the money to make that vision happy. Shelby has to walk a narrow line of achieving his vision while keeping the suits happy. Ferrari has little to do with it. It is impossible to see him as a villain, and the movie doesn’t portray him as such. He is an artisan; his cars are crafted works of art. Other than this race, which Ford won by throwing more money at it, Ferrari and Ford are not really playing the same game. It is a battle of quality and quantity. Still, at the end, it is not Henry Ford II, ostensibly his boss, that Ken Miles looks to after the race; it is Enzo Ferrari.

This is a good movie. Just a solid, entertaining film. That is more than enough.

****

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

This is a delightful spy action movie. It is just a lot of breezy fun to watch.

This Charlie’s Angels sets itself up as a continuation of all of those that have come before it. This is the soft reboot formula that worked so well for the Fast and Furious movies. It doesn’t erase or replace the show or movies, it just builds on them. The Townsend Agency is now international, and Bosley is a rank not a person. Still, all of those that have come before are still a part of the agency’s history. This movie focuses on two agents. Jane, a no nonsense former MI-6 agent and Sabina, a wild card. The movie opens with them taking out a smuggler. The two of them, played by Ella Balinski and Kristen Stewart respectively, don’t exactly get along. A year later, they are working in Europe. The Agency is contacted by Elena, a programmer on an experimental energy device that is potentially dangerous. She wants to turn over evidence that the company, or someone in it, is hiding the danger. They are attacked by an assassin, and the teams Bosley ends up dead. With Elena in tow, the team meets up with a new Bosley, played by Elizabeth Banks, and tries to secure these dangerous prototypes. The whole thing turns into a twisty spy mystery, with echoes of Mission Impossible.

Most of the movie works real well. The characters are better defined than you would expect. There is some specificity to them. The plot is lightweight, but it works. These types of movies tend to get convoluted, but Charlie’s Angels manages some complexity without getting too knotty. It sets up some uncertainty over a traitor in the teams midst, and keeps it just uncertain enough to be enticing. You can guess who is the good guy and who is the bad guy pretty easily, but there is just enough to make you doubt yourself for it to work. The action scenes are well constructed; you can follow the action and the flow of each fight. It maintains a clarity that some more ambitious action movies fail at. They are not that excitingly choreographed, though. The execution feels a little sloppy at times, with tame stunts and oddly framed shots. This movie will never be confused with John Wick.

Kristen Stewart steals this movie. She just takes over every scene she is in. There is something infectiously joyous and fun about her performance. It is not as if she is up against easily overmatched performers. The cast is filled with “that guys”, actors like Djimon Honsou and Nat Faxon. Patrick Stewart plays a Bosley, and is clearly having a great time. Balinski proves herself adept in the actions scenes. Naomi Scott, from Aladdin, plays the client and she is just as watchable her as she was in that early summer hit. Elizabeth Banks, who also wrote, directed and produced this movie, delivers in her role. Still, none of that matters when Kristen Stewart is on the screen. She walks a line of not taking the movie seriously at all, and delivering a perfectly serious performance. She plays the teams wild card, and seems to be treating the whole movie as if she is a wild card. It works; it is magnetic.

This movie seems like it is getting ignored at the box office. That is predictable. It is the kind of movie that I think people will happen upon in a few years. Maybe it will show up on cable, or on a streaming service and people will notice that it is much better than expected. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it is certainly better than it has been received.

***1/2

Parasite Review

Believe the hype, I guess. Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is the masterpiece it has been called.

Kim Ki-taek lives with his family, wife Chung-Sook and children Ki-woo and Ki-jung, in a part basement apartment. Largely unemployed, they work part-time folding cardboard boxes for a local pizza restaurant. Thanks to the recommendation of a family friend, Ki-woo gets a job as a tutor for the daughter of a rich family, the Parks. After overhearing the rich mother talking about needing an art teacher for her son, he suggests a friend of his, Jessica. There is no Jessica, instead his sister Ki-jung poses as an art tutor, and art therapist, to get a job with the family. Soon, all four family members are working for the Park family. That is when things really get weird.

Parasite sets up a poor versus rich parable. It puts you on the side of the poor family, as they work whatever menial jobs they can get, as they huddle around their elevated toilet to snag the wifi signal from a nearby cafe, and as they leave their windows open as exterminators spray the streets to get rid of the bugs infesting their hovel. The literally live below ground, in a semi-basement. You see how little they have.

That is contrasted with the Park family, with their elegant, elevated townhouse. That family is so well off that they are essentially inventing problems to solve. While the movie puts the viewer in the corner of the Kims, it does not demonize their victims. The Parks are oblivious and careless, not vicious. The father’s seem to get along when Ki-taek is driving, but at home it is clear that Mr. Park does care at all for his driver. Ki-woo and his pupil Da-hye have a romance, but when the Parks throw a party and he looks out over the rich, well dressed guests and wonders aloud if he fits in, she clearly has never even considered the question. The Parks are not evil, they are simply unable to see outside of their own sphere. They never look below them.

Parasite does an amazing job of juggling tones. In my admittedly limited experience, Korean movies tend to be elastic with tones and it can be disorienting. Bong Joon-Ho’s previous movie, Okja, did this as well. Parasite managed to vary tones while keeping a feeling of consistency. It is often very funny. It is also frequently tragic, or poignant. It is sometimes scary. The movie jumps from one to the other with amazing deftness, flipping from hilarious to sad and back again in a few seconds.

I am trying not to spoil much of what actually happens in the movie, but Parasite is easily one of the best movies of the year. It starts as one thing, a simple sort of heist movie, then morphs into something else about midway and never looks back. It is stunning.

*****

Motherless Brooklyn

There is something delightfully old-fashioned, for good or ill, about Motherless Brooklyn. I know the movie made significant changes from the source material. I am not quite sure about its portrayal of tourette’s syndrome. But I loved that Motherless Brooklyn is just an old-fashioned noir. It isn’t simple or without bigger themes, but it seems more than happy to just execute a solid formula that hasn’t gotten much use lately.

Lionel Essrog is a private detective working for his father figure Frank Minna. When a mysterious job goes south and Minna ends up shot, Lionel takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of why Frank was killed. As these things tend to go, what at first seems like a fairly simple mystery soon spirals into something much, much bigger. Lionel is a skilled detective, smart and observant. He also suffers from tourette’s and possibly some other neurodevelopmental issues. He works with Minna at his combination private investigation and car service, along with a trio of other orphans that Frank took under his wing. At first, they seem just as eager as Lionel to find Frank’s killers, but things get complicated.

The movie just jumps eagerly into noir tropes. After Lionel literally takes Frank’s place, wearing his hat and coat as he starts backtracking through the investigation that led to Frank being shot. He ends up at a jazz club and finds out that Frank was looking into something that leads to city hall. He meets a crazed seeming man at a community event, who gives him some insight on Moses Randolf, the unelected powerful man who secretly runs the city. Eventually, he discovers the secret that Frank had uncovered that he was going to use to blackmail some powerful people.

That is where the other thread of this movie comes in, bringing in the real history of New York’s policy of discrimination under the guise of urban planning. Lionel’s investigation brings him in contact with African American communities that are labeled as slums and cleared more for the profit of Randolf’s cronies than for helping to reform the city.

Motherless Brooklyn isn’t really showing the audience anything that hasn’t been done before. Chinatown comes to mind. It is a noir detective story, eventually the hero finds out that the system is designed more to enable the bad behavior of the people in charge than to rein them in. Still, the movie shines by being well acted and genuinely thrilling. Edward Norton is great as always and the movie is absolutely populated with recognizable faces. Bruce Willis seems more engaged than he has in years for his brief appearance as Minna. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is excellent as a young lawyer fighting against this gentrification who is more entwined in this that it first appears. The performance that will be most polarizing is Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolf. He channels more than a little of SNL impression of loathsome garbage, but it works for a character that is truly gross and somehow untouchable despite everyone seeing how gross he is.

Motherless Brooklyn doesn’t reinvent the wheel. But it doesn’t really need to. Sometimes all that is needed is something well executed. They don’t make movies like Motherless Brooklyn that often anymore, but I am glad this one got through.

****

My Favorite Crisis

With CW’s Arrowverse adaptation of the seminal DC crossover “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” it felt like a good time to look at my favorite of DC’s Crisis stories. That is not Crisis on Infinite Earths. CoIE is, undeniably, DC’s most important crossover; it shaped the DC Universe for a quarter of a century afterward. However, it is a giant mess of a story. A few really great moments, some nice artwork and a whole lot of nonsense. No, my favorite Crisis story is 2008’s Final Crisis, from Grant Morrison, JG Jones, Jesus Merino, and Doug Mahnke.

Crisis on Infinite Earths was not the first (note the capital) Crisis. Building off the concept of Flash of Two Worlds, where The Flash (Barry Allen) met The Flash (Jay Garrick). From essentially 1963 on, the annual alternate reality crossover between the Justice League, on what was designated Earth-One, and Justice Society, on Earth-Two, met up to have adventures. After 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, Crises became more rare, being reserved for big event crossovers. There was Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis and finally Final Crisis. CoIE, Infinite Crisis, and Final Crisis operate as something of a trilogy involving the Monitors.

I’ve wanted to write about Final Crisis since I started this blog. Way back then, it was the most recent, big important DC story. Grant Morrison was in the middle of his all-time great Batman run. Comics bloggers were still a thing and I wanted to contribute to discourse around what I thought at the time was an unfairly treated triumph. But I found it hard to write about, and by the time I really focused on it, a few years had passed and DC had reset their comics universe with Flashpoint. It didn’t really seem worth going into when many of the characters in the story didn’t even exist in the comics anymore. Plus, I still couldn’t really find a solid angle to write about. As time went on, though, I liked the story more and more. Part of it was I read more crossovers, and realized just how bad most of them are. Final Crisis is different. There is more going on than just the immediate event storyline.

Final Crisis received a pretty tepid reaction when it first came out, and I think it is worth noting why that is. There was an unprecedented amount of build up to Final Crisis. DC did a weekly book, Countdown, that near the end became Countdown to Final Crisis. There were miniseries that sprung out of and from around that weekly book, like Death of the New Gods. These titles were supposed to set up Final Crisis. There were problems. Without blaming anybody, Countdown and its companions did not, in fact, set up Final Crisis. What they did was muddy the water and make things more confusing to anyone paying close attention. It is pretty well settled that Countdown was something of a disaster. It made it hard to transition into the full event of Final Crisis, with all this ultimately unnecessary build up. Reading it now, completely divorced from that history, Final Crisis is an achievement.

I have a hardcover collected edition of the story; one that contains the main series, Final Crisis 1-7, plus the spin-offs Superman Beyond and Final Crisis: Submit. It is not quite the complete story, but it has all the important bits.

It is still hard to get into what makes Final Crisis so great. What it does better than almost any other similar event is that it feels epic, it feels mythic. From almost the very start of Final Crisis you can feel that the fate of the universe is at stake and the book never really lets that go. There was a war in heaven, and evil won. The book opens with cavemen, specifically Anthro, the First Boy, receiving knowledge from the New God Metron. That knowledge includes fire. From there is moves to the modern day and “Terrible” Dan Turpin.

Dan Turpin is an interesting viewpoint character to start with. Dan Turpin is one of many characters created by Jack Kirby. Many of Kirby’s DC characters form the backbone of Final Crisis. Turpin arguably became most well known on the Superman Animated show from the 90’s, where he was modeled after Jack Kirby. Here he is investigating some missing kids when he finds the New God Orion dying in a dumpster. Red skies, the sign of a Crisis, are already here.

The dying Orion manages to say “. . . heaven cracked and broken … You! They did not die! He is in you all . . . fight.” before falling dead. While it isn’t clear at the time, it soon becomes obvious that the evil Gods of Apokalips, Darkseid and his minions, have possessed people on Earth and are trying to conquer it. The bad guys plans are already in motion, and the heroes don’t even know what is happening. The first issue moves to a meeting of the Secret Society of Supervillains, where the Martian Manhunter is killed so Libra can prove he can help the bad guys win. The Justice League, specifically the Green Lanterns, investigate the dead God. Dan Turpin tracks down the missing kids, and finds out that they have been brainwashed by Darkseid. Then the issue reveals the Monitors; now instead of one character, they are a group that monitors the 52 different universes of the Multiverse. One of them failed, and is cast down to live as a mortal. Finally, the issue ends with Kamandi, the last boy, meeting Anthro, the first boy, to get the weapon that Metron gave him to fight the bad guys.

I am not going to go through the series blow by blow, but this first issue show the breadth of the story. Obviously, it builds from there. Batman is taken off the board by a corrupted Green Lantern. Superman is sidelined when the Daily Planet is attacked. Barry Allen, dead since Crisis on Infinite Earths, appears chasing the bullet that killed Orion backwards through time. He and the other Flashes disappear chasing it. Dan Turpin is taken by the bad guys to be the new vessel for Darkseid. Events continues to outpace the heroes. Wonder Woman becomes the carrier for an evil disease. The Anti-Life Equation, the macguffin that Darkseid has been chasing since Jack Kirby started the Fourth World, is transmitted across the Earth over the internet.

This is when things get weird. Yeah, now. Superman Beyond is something else. Superman is taken on a universe spanning adventure by a Monitor with promise of something to save Lois Lane’s life. He joins a team of Superman analogues, including Captain Marvel–better known now as Shazam–as they try to avert a Multiverse wide catastrophe. They end up in Limbo, where Superman learns the history of the Monitors, as well as the legend of the evil Monitor Mandrakk. It has Superman yelling dialogue like: “There are 52 worlds in the Multiversal Superstructure. Take the Ultima Thule, Marvel! I’ll get the energy you need to return to the Multiverse. Warn everyone, like Paul Revere! Tell them Mandrakk is coming! I’ll do what I can to plug the hole in forever!” It has Superman turn into a giant Superman robot to fight Mandrakk, and cast him out of reality. Also, it shows Superman’s tombstone, which reads “To Be Continued . . .”

When you get into the back half of the series, the narrative starts to break down. Not out of a failure in the writing, but as a part of the story. Time and space are crumbling, and the story starts to break into jagged pieces. It gives you enough to grasp what is going on, but never enough to feel comfortable in the story. I can understand not liking it, but when the goal is to tell a story about all of reality breaking, the brief glimpses it gives the reader work wonderfully.

It basically goes from the heroes figuring out the bad guys are up to something to the bad guys victorious, with the last remaining heroes holed up in a few safe watchtowers, planning a last desperate stand. Wonder Woman has been corrupted, the rest of the big guns, Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, are all off the board. Instead, it focuses on lesser known heroes. Frankenstein. The Ray. Black Canary. Dan Turpin finally gives in to Darkseid, and it seems like humanity is on its last legs, just as they have mounted some kind of counterattack.

Then the last two issues happen. Issue 6 feels especially desperate. The Battle for Bludhaven, the heroes big plan happens and it is tense. Other than Supergirl, the heroes don’t exactly have their A-team. Batman finally reappears, having escaped. Breaking his rule against guns, he uses the bullet that killed Orion to shoot Darkseid, just as Darkseid blasts him with his Omega Beams. Superman reappears and turns the tide in the battle, setting up the final issue showdown with the wounded and dying Darkseid. All this is happening while reality itself continues to crumble. There is just so much going on. Of course the good guys win.

Final Crisis is the final in that trilogy of Crises. It is also a middle chapter of Grant Morrison’s own explorations of the DC Multiverse. It is in many ways a sequel to Seven Soldiers of Victory, another Morrison experiment I’ve really wanted to write about, and a prequel to Multiversity, which needs to be added to my list of comics to write about. For my money, and with respect to Spider-Verse and DC One Million, Final Crisis is the most enjoyable event crossover either DC or Marvel has ever put out. There are just so many moments and concepts. And considering that DC wiped that version of the world away a bare few years later, it feels kind of like the last gasp of the version of the DC universe I first learned to love. It is really worth tracking down and giving a read. I am sure the Arrowverse will never do an adaptation of it. Even more than Crisis on Infinite Earths, Final Crisis seems downright unfilmable as live action.