The Rhythm Section

It feels like beating a dead horse to write about this movie. It didn’t review well, nor did it make any money. There really isn’t a good movie. There are certainly things it does well, but the package does not come together into any kind of entertaining movie.

The Rhythm Section is a spy movie about a woman, Stephanie (Blake Lively) whose family was killed in a plane crash. A few years after that, she is visited by a reporter who tells her that the plane crash was not an accident, but a terrorist attack. This leads to Stephanie wanting to get revenge. First she attempts it on her own, then she seeks help from a former MI6 agent played by Jude Law. He trains her, then uses her to track down the people responsible for the plane bombing.

The movie creates strange juxtapositions. It is mostly a somber, realistic take on a spy or revenge movie. But it is full of needle drops that seem to come from a much more fun, pulpier movie. It highlights the humanity of Stephanie, showing the toll that losing her family, and blaming herself for it. She is slowly killing herself as the movie starts. She has fallen as low as she can. Then the movie gives a perverse ray of hope; it gives her someone to blame. It shows how desperate she is to do something to get revenge, but how hard it is to take a human life, especially when she has to look the person in the eye to do it. Then she has to train.

A lot of movies, fun and good movies, would breeze through this training, or end up with Stephanie as a cold, bad ass killer. To its detriment, The Rhythm Section is better than that. She trains for a few months and knows enough to get herself into more trouble. She is obviously not ready for this work, but she knows enough to fake. Every attempt she makes to do James Bond stuff ends horribly. She fails repeatedly.

The strange juxtapositions come in with the filmmaking. Sometimes things are shot handheld, to try to appear realistic. Sometimes it is super stylized. Most discordant is the ending, with Stephanie walking off like a supreme badass, which is not what the movie showed her becoming. The ending treats everything before this as an origin story, but there her character arc ends with her having no reason to ever engage in this sort of work again.

It is not like you can point to any one thing that sinks this movie. Lively and Law, and Sterling K Brown who plays an information broker, are good. The movie does some interesting things. But as it goes on it becomes more and more clear that the pieces here just don’t fit together.

**

Judgment

Judgment is the new game from the studio behind the Yakuza series. I love the Yakuza games. With that series moving in a different direction, Judgment seemed to be an interesting experiment.

Judgment ends up trapped between the game it is and the game it wants to be. Built from the same framework as Yakuza 6, it ends up playing very similarly. But at every turn, it seems to want to be something different. Something maybe more thoughtful. It just can’t be that because it is still, at its core, a brawler.

Judgment simply does not work as well as the Yakuza games. The biggest reason for that is the change from playing as Kazuma Kiryu to Takayuki Yagami. Yagami is just orders of magnitude less interesting of a character than Kiryu is. He might have worked fine in a role like the various other playable characters from Yakuza 4 or 5, but he wouldn’t stand out amongst those guys either. He’s not even on the level of Akiyama or Saejima.

The biggest problem is that he just seems more knowing and worldly than Kiryu. Part of what makes Kiryu interesting is how he reacts to everything as if he’s never heard of it before. Part of that comes from him spending a decade in prison. He simply accepts everything new he finds and works it into his understanding of the world. Yagami is more cynical. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it changes the tone of some of the wackier moments. In the main story it is mostly fine.

As far as the gameplay, the attempts to graft some investigatory stuff onto a Yakuza game ends up with a game that feels unfortunately modal. It is a somewhat fractured experience. You going into investigation mode to look around, chase mode, follow mode, fight mode, explore mode. Each one operates a little differently than the others. The Yakuza games were once more like this, but lately they’ve felt more cohesive. This feels like a step back.

I am being way too negative. There is a whole lot to like here. The fighting is still fun. The game is still packed with things to do. There are a half dozen arcade games to play, the usual array of mini-games and the same Kamurocho to explore.

The mix of story between sidequest and main plot is not as good here as it is in Yakuza games, I really did enjoy this game as a 20 hour action movie. I like the idea of doing the investigative work, of exploring this fake section of a real city from another point of view. It feels kind of like what this studio was trying to do with Yakuza’s 4 & 5, when the game minimized Kiryu and brought in other characters. Judgment is at its best the further it gets away from that other series. It brushes up against the problem that video games mostly only understand how to interact through violence. That leads to the story getting full on preposterous as it goes, and calls for a final boss fight that makes less sense as an ending than the courtroom scene that preceded it.

Judgment_20190610083916

I don’t want to spoil things, but Judgment starts with Yagami being hired to investigate for his former law firm. They are defending a Yakuza boss accused of murder. Yagami’s investigation turns up evidence that it was impossible the guy did it, but also evidence that he knew more than he was letting on. So Yagami keeps looking. Looking into the Yakuza family, looking into an encroaching family, looking into a medical research organization with high connections and shady dealings. Soon, more bodies show up, and Yagami is pulling on the thread of a giant conspiracy. One that reaches deeper than even he knows. It is pretty good stuff; ridiculous but in a fun way.

Judgment might not have ended up being exactly what I wanted, but it confirmed that I want more of what Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios is putting out. And I am very interested to see what they do with the Yakuza series now that they have moved on from Kazuma Kiryu.

What I Read January 2020

Good start to the year, with four books finished in January. I hope to keep up the pace for the next few months, before I have to really buckle down and study for the bar. I am going to try to finish up some books I have laying around that I haven’t managed to get read.

Mort

Terry Pratchett

I bought some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books years ago on my kindle, but never got around to reading them. Pratchett is an author that many have told me I should read, and every brush I’ve had with his work has been enjoyable, including the book Dodger a few years ago. So I started with Mort. It’s good.

Mort is about a young man named Mort, who is hired by Death to be his apprentice. It works out for a while. Mort is kind of useless, but he tries hard. As the book goes along, Death takes on some of Mort’s human characteristics and Mort starts acting more like Death. The big problem Mort faces is that when he is sent out to collect a soul, he prevents the death of the woman instead. This creates a split in reality, because the woman was supposed to die. So while Death goes out to experience human life, Mort has to try to fix things before disaster strikes.

What really works is the wit of this book. It manages to be funny and smart, with lots of fun wordplay and gags, but to never let that undercut the drama of the narrative. The book is charming. Death is an especially enjoyable creation; he is the grim reaper, but he is mostly just a guy with a job to do. It isn’t a nice job, but it is a necessary one. He is kind of an outsider, not human, but very intrigued by humanity. It is a really interesting dynamic.

Equal Rites

Terry Pratchett

I found this discworld book to be less successful than Mort. Mort had characters I liked; Equal Rites had characters I wanted to like. For this book to work, you have to buy into Discworld’s magic system, and I just don’t. It seems a little too silly, and the gendered aspects to it are very 1980s. Esk isn’t much of a character; the book sketches her out, but moves too fast to really make much of her. The same goes for Simon. Granny Weatherwax is the most dynamic character here, trying to guide the young woman who can do wizard magic instead of witch magic.

The gendered magic is just not interesting in and of itself to me. The wit from Pratchett’s other books is still present, but it is in service to a story that just didn’t do anything for me. That said, it isn’t like it really disliked this book. It was a step down from Mort, but it was a fast and fun read that once it was over left me just a little underwhelmed. On to the next Discworld book, which is the one that apparently Pratchett suggests starting with: Sourcery.

From Russia, With Love

Ian Fleming

I am coming to the conclusion that I am just not a big fan of Ian Fleming’s writing. This is the fifth or so Bond book I’ve read, and it is my least favorite. I love the movies. I see how they got from the books to the films and not all of the changes are bad. But one thing that tends to stick out in the early (and later, for that matter) movies is the blatant sexism. The thing is, that element is, if anything, toned down from the books. I thought Diamonds Are Forever was bad in that regard, but this book is especially bad.

That would be forgivable, to an extent, if the rest of the book was good, but From Russia, With Love doesn’t have a lot else going on. Much of the book is spent setting up the villains and the Russian plot to discredit MI6 and destroy James Bond. Bond doesn’t really enter the book until about a third of the way in and proceeds to do almost nothing. The few pulpy action scenes are great, but they really take a back seat to a stupendously uninteresting plot. How this became my favorite movie in this series I’ll never know.

Mystery Mile

Margery Allingham

I don’t know that I am really on Allingham’s page here. This book just didn’t click with me. It is likely mostly on me, but this mystery lacked the clarity of character and situation that I appreciate from writers like Sayers and Christie. This book is a lot more vague and formless. I am willing to believe that it is my failure of comprehension; I was reading it a chapter at a time, usually pretty late at night, with long delays between each chapter. It reads more like a thriller forced into a mystery mold. You get the usual collection of characters, and then a death, but the death is immediately suspected to be caused by outside agents, and there is a lot more action and adventure than the usual mystery. I have a couple more Allingham books on my kindle and hopefully those work better for me.

The Gentlemen

The Gentlemen did not disappoint. While not as quite as light on its feet or sheerly entertaining as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, The Gentlemen still has a lot to enjoy. There is this unfortunate undertone of something really gross just beneath the surface of this movie. The movie traffics in the idea that if it is offensive to everyone, it is offensive to no one and while I don’t think that holds up to any sort of scrutiny, this is not really a movie that invites any sort of scrutiny.

The movie follows Matthew McConaughey’s Mickey Pearson, a marijuana kingpin who is looking to get out of the game, to retire and spend time with his wife. He is looking to sell out to an American billionaire. Also looking to hone in on his territory is an up and coming Chinese mobster Dry Eye. The story of this potential deal is laid out by Fletcher, a private eye hired to turn up dirt on Mickey, who is telling his story to Mickey’s right hand man Raymond. Of course, there is more going on with every character than is initially apparent. Also, Colin Firth shows up as an Irish boxing coach who gets involved trying to keep some of his young boxers out of trouble.

A troubling part of the movie is how it frames its villains. It plays up the foreignness of Dry Eye, and the American billionaire is also Jewish. Fletcher, who quickly shows himself to not be trustworthy, plays up his homosexuality. The movie is also pretty sympathetic to the plight of impoverished aristocrats who can’t afford the upkeep on their giant manors. But to accept this framing as truly troubling, you have to buy Mickey as someone worth rooting for, and I don’t think the movie really makes you root for Mickey. You like the cool, collected Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) and Mickey’s wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), who runs an auto-body shop by women for women. But Mickey himself, an American who came to the U.K. and started a drug empire, is not especially sympathetic. The only truly likable person is Coach, a rough and tumble guy who just wants to keep some youngsters out of trouble.

The movie is mostly enjoyable. As it plays out as Fletcher telling Raymond a story, it allows the movie to have some fun with things, with Fletcher spicing up the story when he is missing information or just wants to make something up. It allows for director Guy Ritchie to use some of his fun tricks to spice things up. However, it never quite gets to that incredible tumbling house of cards feeling that Snatch managed. In Ritchie’s earlier gangster movies, you had several different groups of running different schemes that bounce off of each other in interesting ways. The Gentlemen really only has two or three factions and little in the way of surprise. It is still fun, but it feels just a little lacking.

Still, it is fun to be back in Ritchie’s English underworld. Honestly, while I have plenty of complaints, I really enjoyed seeing this. It is not a movie that is going to stick you for long after you leave the theater, but it is a really enjoyable time while you are there.

****

My World, My Way

During the height of the Nintendo DS’s life, certain niche publishers loaded the system up with niche titles. Even at the time, it was obviously a golden age for middle of the road jrpgs and weird experiments. In 2009 Atlus published My World, My Way; a title that disappeared pretty quickly into that sea of titles and was quickly forgotten. It was kind of sad; the game is a quirky little game that deserves at least a little attention.

The set up for My World, My Way is that spoiled fantasy princess Elise gets annoyed that the cute boy she meets has no interest in her because she is just a spoiled princess. To show him what’s up, she decides to go on an adventure to show him that she could be an adventurer. To make sure she comes home safe, her father sends Nero to arrange for suitably safe adventures for her. As things go, she slowly grows into a true adventurer.

Other than the set up, there really isn’t anything all that novel to the game. The player has a two person party with Elise and her little pink slime Pinky. Elise is a traditional jrpg character. She levels up, she gets new equipment, she learns new skills. There are some wrinkles. Elise can get stat increases by eating meals at inns. Those are expensive, but they make a big difference the closer to the end you get. She can also learn spells by being hit with them. Well, actually not Elise; her pet parrot who learns magic spells for her. Pinky is an old monster archetype character; it grows by copying the body parts of enemies you defeat, with stronger monsters giving stronger stats and abilities. This sort of growth has existed since as far back as Final Fantasy Legend on the Gameboy. While having two different kinds of growth gives the player something, having only two characters makes it feels ultimately limited. The exploration is also pretty typical. You fight monsters with physical attacks and magic, beating monsters to complete quests.

Where the game is interesting is in Elise’s Pouting powers. As a spoiled princess, Elise is able to pout and get her way. Her pouting is so powerful it can change the nature of the world. These powers are vast. Elise can make enemies give more money, items or experience. She can simply demand a quest be counted as finished, even if it is not. She can force the the actual landscape of the world to change. If she needs to find flowers, she can turn forests into flower gardens. If she needs show, she can turn swamps into tundra. She can even invoke these powers in battle. Before battle, she can demand to go first or just decide the battle is not worth it and make the enemies go away. During the fight, she can give the enemies various status effects and hindrances.

That makes the game at least somewhat interesting. The pouting powers have their own points system to go with HP and MP, so you have balance which of your powers you use when. The whole game is about making a fairly unfriendly game work for you. It also makes the gameplay dovetail quite nicely with the story.

There really isn’t a lot of story here; I spoiled most of it with the set up. What makes it work is that Elise just really doesn’t care about the details of her adventure. She is as impatient as the player to get through the bullshit. Like the player, she is here to make her numbers get bigger; Elise couldn’t care less whether she collects 15 doodads to give the mayor of whatever town. She’s got on blinders, which makes the other part of the story work. Running just ahead of Elise is Nero, her mentor. He is setting up many of the quests she is completing, trying to make sure her goals are within her abilities. She ends up consistently doing better than he expects though.

It is genuinely enjoyable to see Elise just consistently blast through all the usual jrpg bullshit. There is a wise old owl that shows up to give advice, but Elise has absolutely no time for him. She cuts him off and tells him to get to the point.

I bought this game when it was new. I had some money and was spending way too much time playing 3DS games. I got about halfway through it before giving up. The game is only about twenty hours long and that is about all the time the game can support. For some reason I picked it back up a decade later. There wasn’t a lot of story to forget, so it was easy to get back into and push through to the end. This is the kind of hidden gem that is all over the DS library. There is no reason for anyone to go search out this game today, but if you stumble upon it, it is worth giving a shot.

Little Women Review

I feel like a failure of an English major to admit that I have never read Little Women. I have also never seen any of the previous adaptations of it. I knew generally that it was about the young lives of four sisters, but that was about it. I do know something of the changes this adaptation made to the story, but not enough for me to be judging it based on that. Little Women is simply an excellent movie.

The movie starts with the March sisters grown. Jo is in New York, writing. Meg is married with a pair of children. Amy is Paris, learning art and acting as a companion to her elderly aunt. And Beth is still at home, slowly dying from a wasting disease. The movie then proceeds along two paths; one in the past as the March women grow up, and one in the present of the movie as their lives develop as adults. This is not the format of the book, which follows the story in linear fashion. This change serves to highlight the themes that director Greta Gerwig focuses on.

A major concern are the choices and compromises women have to make to simply live their lives. The Marches deal with this differently. Jo fights against the strictures placed upon her, determined to forge her own path. Meg, meanwhile, takes a more traditional route, opting for a largely traditional life as a wife and mother. Amy, meanwhile, finds a middle path. It makes her seem somewhat mercenary, but she learns that marriage is primarily a business transaction. All three of them find happiness, they simply take different paths to get there.

The movie uses the new structure to set up a lot of interesting juxtapositions, both with time and with the fact that Jo is a writer and Gerwig goes out of her way to conflate Jo March with Louisa May Alcott. It works.

This would all make for a fine movie, but the craft on display turns into an amazing one. I don’t know how else to describe the cast except for phenomenal. Starting with the supporting players, Little Women packs some names, all of whom do some good work. Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, and Laura Dern all show up and are amazing. Even Bob Odenkirk, whose energy is not quite on the same plane as the rest of the cast, is a good actor doing good work. Then there are the stars. The low person on the totem pole is Emma Watson, a movie star in her own right who has headlined blockbusters. But her role does not quite let her shine like what turns out to be the central trio. Florence Pugh had a hell of a 2019, and Amy might be her best performance, even if you never quite buy her as a bratty 12 year old. Saorise Ronan has quickly staked a claim as one of the best actresses working today, and she simply further cements that here. Finally, Timothy Chalamet continues to be impressive. It is just great all around.

The look of the movie is also excellent. It is largely confined to a couple of locations, primarily the March home, but those sets look real and lived in. The movie is wonderfully shot; it simply looks amazing.

Again, I don’t know the book. But Little Women is an excellent adaptation because whatever the book is, it turns it into a genuinely excellent and engrossing movie.

*****

1917 Review

I was somewhat in the bag for 1917 before it started. I am fascinated by the First World War; it was terrible and tragic and pointless, but something about it really interests me. How starkly it shows the pointlessness of war is a big part of it. I am also interested in the rapidly changing technology of the war, the meeting of old world technology with new – tanks vs. horses and the like – simply grab my interest. So a prestige movie set during that war was something I was interested in. Luckily, 1917 did not disappoint.

The plot of the movie is almost unfathomably simple. One division of the Allied force is planning an attack and headquarters has information that they are headed into a trap. Unfortunately, they have no way of communicating with this division in time to stop the attack. So two soldiers are tasked with carrying a message across eight miles of contested territory to potentially save ten thousand lives. Those two soldiers, Lance Corporal’s Schofield and Blake, are our protagonists.

The movie is staged as a one shot, generally concealing any cuts. This keeps the viewer with the two protagonists the whole time. There are no cutaways to commanders or enemies or ticking clocks, it just keeps following these two soldiers as they trek across no man’s land and other battlefields. While it mostly serves as a movie making gimmick, and is likely the source of several Oscar wins, the one take also keeps the viewer in the mind of the soldiers.

Being that close, physically, to the characters makes the rest of the movie works. First is a dizzying tour of the Allied trenches as Blake and Schofield find the place to stage their crossing. It plays out kind of episodically. They cross no man’s land. They find abandoned enemy trenches, they find an abandoned farmhouse. Briefly their path crosses that of another unit and they travel with them for a while.

Most striking about the movie is how its acts of heroism are mostly nonviolent. This is a war movie, there is war. Schofield has a brief encounter with a sniper and the pair gets into conflict as they try to save a downed German pilot. The biggest moment of violence is likely Schofield strangling an enemy to death in an attempt to avoid alerting his compatriot. It is horrifying. Conversely, other moments are shown as strictly heroic. Blake pulling Schofield out of the rubble after a bomb goes off. Schofield giving all of his rations, and some milk he found at the farm, to a woman and a child hiding in the remains of a bombed out city. Schofield rallying the troops to push a truck out of the mud so they can continue on their journey. Schofield running across the edge of a battlefield in a desperate attempt to stop a battle. Those are the moments of heroism. The war is pointless.

I don’t know how this movie will hold up to repeat viewings. The characters are thinly drawn; the movie is mostly a technical exercise. The people met along the journey are a who’s who of British actors. Here’s Andrew Scott, there’s Colin Firth, look its Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch. They are all great actors, but the artificiality of their roles is a little distracting. After admittedly impressive impact of a one-shot war movie wears off, I don’t know how much this movie has. But the strikingly beautiful and sad moments on first viewing are enough that I really enjoyed it.

****1/2

Just Mercy

If you are being incredibly reductive, and I am, Just Mercy is a message movie. The movie is simply steeped in earnest moralizing. It could have become unbearable. Fortunately, it manages to hold back just enough, and is well performed enough, that it gets its message across in a mostly entertaining way.

Michael B. Jordan plays Brian Stevenson, a newly graduated from Harvard lawyer who moves to Alabama to set up the Equal Justice Initiative to help people on death row. Among the cases he takes on is that of Walter “Johnny D” McMillan, played by Jamie Foxx, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death based on patently and obviously false eye witness testimony. Just Mercy follows Stevenson as he digs into McMillan’s case and as he deals with threats and obstacles from the racist system that put McMillan on Death Row and the racists who are working to keep him there.

The movie is heavy without being completely heavy handed. It shows starkly what black people face in this country and the south especially. Stevenson starts out somewhat insulated thanks to his upbringing in New England. He is soon disabused of any notions of fairness in the system. It starts with a forced strip search when he visits his clients in the prison and escalates to the local police holding him at gunpoint during a traffic stop that is a pretext to rummage through his files.

One thing Just Mercy does especially well is keeping focus on the prisoners. Three are major characters in the movie: McMillan, Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), and Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan). The first two claim to be innocent of the crimes they were convicted of (and were both eventually exonerated). Richardson is guilty, but the movie emphasizes his humanity. He did a terrible thing, but the movie interrogates whether that makes it okay to end his life. Richardson was a Vietnam vet who suffered from PTSD. He was clearly traumatized, but instead of getting help, he was abandoned by the system.

The movie also does a great job of highlighting the tedium of legal work. Stevenson spends a lot of his time pouring through files, doing research and crafting motions to try to get justice for his clients. These efforts come to naught for the bulk of the movie. His motions are denied, even when the evidence he presents is overwhelming. It is long, crushing, often fruitless work. The movie does not make it exciting, but it does make it look heroic.

The movie cannot help but be incredibly earnest because this is an incredibly important topic. People’s lives are on the line here. It succeeds largely on almost uniformly strong performances. Jamie Foxx is the standout, he is amazing in this movie. Brie Larson does what she can with a role that is important and kind of nothing. Tim Blake Nelson and Rafe Spall are solid as well. The movie manages to give hope in what is a hopeless situation, with the idea that with enough work things can get better. I’ll retract this statement if someone tells me the character is based on a real person, but I could have done without the increasingly sympathetic prison guard. That felt like a ill-fitting note in the context of the rest of the movie.

I’ll end with a little moralizing of my own. The Capital punishment is cruel and unusual punishment. It is barbaric and has no place in a civilized society. Even if it were ever justified, which it is not, the systems the United States has in place to enact it are too flawed to be acceptable. The movie notes this in its closing moments and is exactly right. The problem with a message movie like this is that it either is accepted by everyone, making it pointless, or those who reject it simply don’t watch or ignore it. Hopefully some people see this movie and learn something about our incredibly flawed justice system and that changes still need to be made to fix it.

****