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.

****

My Most Anticipated Movies of 2020

First, I will note that my list skews to bigger movies because those are movies that we have information on.  I need something to get me anticipating.  Next, I’ve got some runners up for movies that didn’t quite make my list. The Personal History of David Copperfield is on my radar because it is directed by Armando Iannucci, who did the delightful Death of Stalin a few years ago and Veep. Also, Godzilla vs Kong is coming around Christmas; I have liked all three of the previous MonsterVerse movies. There is an adaptation of the Monster Hunter video games that I am equally anticipating and dreading. Jungle Cruise has The Rock in it. The Marvel movies, Black Widow and Eternals, should be good. I am most looking forward to Eternals because of its Jack Kirby provenance. There are a couple of original Pixar movies coming that should be good. Fast & Furious 9 is also on the way; I liked Hobbs and Shaw, but I am not sure this series isn’t running out of gas. At least Justin Lin is back directing. Now, here is my Top 10:

10. Birds of Prey – This one might just be the fact that it is actually coming soon and I am a little bit hyped to see it. Because I am genuinely interested in this movie and, Joker aside, DC has been on a bit of a hot streak lately. Basically, this movie gets the last spot because I know more about it than most of my honorable mentions.

9. No Time to Die – I kind of hated Spectre. This looks like a direct sequel to that movie in a way that not a lot of Bond movies are. Honestly, Skyfall aside I’ve never really warmed to Daniel Craig’s James Bond. I have, however, really warmed to Craig over the last few years. Plus the rest of the cast (Ana de Armas!) and Cary Fukunaga directing makes me want to see this.

8. The Gentleman – I might be the outlier here, but I still really like Guy Ritchie. Snatch and Lock Stock hold up. Man from UNCLE was a delight, Aladdin is the best of the Disney live action remakes. The trailer makes this look like it has the energy of Ritchie’s earlier gangster films. Those simply work for me. Plus, this has an interesting cast seemingly having a great time. I guess I’ll see how good it is in a few days.

7. Death on the Nile – Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is a movie that has aged really well for me. I thought upon first seeing it that it might have just been that I hadn’t really seen a murder mystery movie of any quality in a long time, but rewatching it has shown that it is just a fundamentally well made version of a good story. I hope this is more of the same. Branagh’s Poirot with a cast full of names in a beautiful place. This is my jam.

6. Bob’s Burgers – I feel like I shouldn’t be this excited for this movie; it will almost undoubtedly turn out to be just an 80 minute or so long episode of the TV show. But Bob’s Burgers is one of my favorites and even an extra long episode gives me more to go on than what I know of a lot of movies coming this year. The chance that it does something more is enough to get it this high on the list.

5. Tenet – It is Christopher Nolan, which is enough. But it also looks really interesting, like some kind of time manipulating spy movie. I don’t know, it is hard to tell from previews. But Nolan. And a really interesting cast.

4. Dune – Nearly half of my list is just because I want to see what a specific director’s next movie. This is one of those. I am currently reading Dune, but only have a vague idea of what the story is. (I’ve never seen the Lynch Dune movie). But I am here for Denis Villeneuve after Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. And that cast is amazing.

3. Wonder Woman 1984 – The first Wonder Woman is one of my favorite superhero movies of the last few years. I thought the trailer for this sequel looked great. I don’t really have any more to say.

2. Last Night in Soho – If descriptions of this called it anything other than a horror movie, it would be my most anticipated movie of the year. Edgar Wright is my absolute favorite director, but as a rule I don’t watch horror movies. (Maybe I should move this one down.) I am hoping for something that is not a straight horror movie, but I will likely see whatever it is.

1. Bill & Ted: Face the Music – This movie kept moving up this list as I made it. I really shouldn’t be anticipating it as much as I am, but nothing else coming this year fills me with as much pure joy. The Bill & Ted movies were really important to me growing up. I loved the time traveling antics of the first movie and the sheer unrepentant weirdness of the second one. The track record of this sort of late-coming sequel is miserable, but for some reason I think this will be the exception. It is enough to see Keanu and Alex Winter back is enough for me.

What I Watched December 2019

Movies

Knives Out – wrote about it here. *****

The Irishman – Martin Scorcese returns to the gangster genre for this contemplative, mournful deconstruction of the tropes of the genre. Instead of showing these organized murderers as strong and powerful, it reveals them as weak and empty. It deftly illustrates the erosion of their souls as things go along. De Niro’s character sitting alone in the nursing home at the end of the movie might be one of the most tragic things I’ve ever seen. *****

Queen & Slim – wrote about it here. **1/2

The Report – Dry as old toast, but this is a well made drama about the Senate’s investigation of the CIA’s torture program. This is an important story that people need to know about, but as well made and acted as this movie is, it is more likely to get casual viewers to turn it off pretty quickly. ****

Dark Waters – wrote about it here. ****

Marriage Story – I see why people are going nuts over this movie. It is a real and grounded portrayal of a family going through a divorce. Grounded except that they have no need to worry about money, which is a big concern for a lot of people. Still, strong performances all around and just truly human. ****

A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby – Another Christmas Prince movie. Harmless and light. I see the comforting appeal of these Christmas movies. There just really isn’t anything of substance here. **1/2

American Son – This feels like, and is, an adaptation of a stage play. It takes place all in one location and is just 4 people talking to each other. It’s heart is in the right place, but it is didactic and clumsy. I didn’t like it much at all. **

6 Underground – Michael Bay seems to have watched Fast & Furious and Mission Impossible and tried to replicate it, with a little bit of Batman thrown in. The result is visually incomprehensible and morally reprehensible. It is a movie about giving into people’s worst impulses framed as doing the right thing. As much as it makes sense it is kind of gross and not especially fun to watch. *1/2

Earthquake Bird – A weird little drama about people living in Japan who may or may not be murderers/or causing deaths. It doesn’t really work and I am not sure what I am supposed to take from it. I do like Riley Keough and Alicia Vikander, though. **

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi – wrote about it here. I like this movie more every time I rewatch it. *****

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker – wrote about it here. ***

The Souvenir – I saw this on a lot of Top 10 lists and watched it on Amazon Prime. I see why it’s getting praise. I got no enjoyment out of watching it. It is the story of a woman trapped in a relationship with a man suffering from addiction. It is harrowing. ****

How to Train Your Dragon The Hidden World – This movie is gorgeous and a lot of fun, but I have always been a little more cold to these Dragon movies than a lot of people. This one, like the other two, is fine. It is enjoyable family entertainment. Toothless is a great fake pet that effectively mimics a lot of true feeling pet behavior. It’s fine. ***1/2

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – I forgot this movie was actually released. It is a big muddled mess. It moves along on the dream logic that is essentially Terry Gilliam’s calling card. Whatever this movie’s problems are, here Gilliam has recaptured his late 80’s-early 90’s magic. This would fit right in with Brazil and The Fisher King. A movie director reconnects with some performers he worked with years ago, one of whom is convinced that he is Don Quixote and the director is Sancho. The director gets sucked into the man’s orbit and I guess learns a lesson. It is certainly not for everybody, but I loved it. *****

Murder on the Orient Express (1974) – This was on Amazon Prime. I was in a murder mystery mood after seeing Knives Out (I am always in a murder mystery mood). It’s good. Really good. ****

Jumanji: The Next Level – wrote about it here. ***1/2

Solo: A Star Wars Story – I watched this on Netflix after seeing Rise of Skywalker, and I liked it a lot more than I remembered liking it. I am still annoyed by some small moments, but for the most part is an excellent space western. I think I need to get it on DVD. ****

American Factory – A documentary about a Chinese company opening an automotive glass company in the United States. It really highlights some cultural differences, as well as some ways in which we are the same. One of those ways is that the bosses will do everything they can to squeeze employees and pad the bottom line. The second half is all about the factory attempts to unionize so they can get safe working conditions and fair pay. It is very interesting. ****

The Aeronauts – This movie feels like awards bait that has gotten summarily ignored during awards season. I liked it. It looks amazing. The story is pretty simple, it is mostly just Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in a hot air balloon, attempting to conduct scientific experiments and achieve record elevations. Eventually, they get high enough that they lose air. For a movie as limited in setting as it is, it manages to feel very adventurous. I thought it was a lot of fun. ***1/2

TV

Reprisal – I feel like this show needs more attention. It is a strange noir crime show. It takes a lot of time to build the world building. The plot gets very intricate, and I might have fallen asleep during an episode and got a little lost. There is one scene where two characters have a phone conversation while sitting on the same couch. At times it seems to be set in the 50s, at others the 80s. I think it is set in the present. It is just a weird, stylish, entertaining show.

Runaways S2 – I feel like I should like this show, but somehow it seems to be transfering over little of what made the comics so enjoyable. Also, I am not sure how well those comics hold up, because this season felt more true to them and was no more enjoyable than the first. I will likely get to the 3rd season soon, just to be done with this.

The Movies that Made Us – The people behind the Toys that Made Us switched over to movies, giving us some slight making of documentaries. These were pretty fun.

The Confession Killer – A true crime series about a man who confessed to hundreds of murders and was manipulated by overworked prosecutors and ambitious and obviously corrupt Texas Rangers to keep admitting to murders that it was clear he did not commit. The show does its best to not portray the man as a victim, he did murder at least two people. But he is not the criminal mastermind who murdered hundreds that some Rangers still claim he is. It is a really strange story that mostly just serves to some flaws in the justice system.

The Witcher – I am not especially familiar with the games or the books this is based on, but I had a tremendous amount of fun with The Witcher. It does some things with chronology that are confusing and its three separate plotlines take forever to connect. But the core of the show, Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher, traveling from town to town fighting monsters, is delightful. The interplay between the grouchy Geralt and his friend Jaskier the bard is fun. Yennefer is great, and once her story starts to intertwine with Geralt’s the show really gets into high gear. The biggest problem with the show, if you can call it a problem, is the adventures of young Ciri, a princess whose country is overrun in the first episode and she spends the whole season on the run, looking for Geralt for reasons that do not become clear until near the end of the season. She is fine and her plot works, but it never really connects with the others. Still, I loved the show overall. I can’t wait for season 2.

The Mandalorian – My cousin has Disney Plus and I watched this at her place in the days after Christmas. It is good, but I am not sure I am joining the hype train for it. I think the practical effects looked kind of cheap and ugly. While I appreciated the simplicity of the story, I also didn’t find all that much to latch onto. I’ll check in on season 2 and I hope it continues to deepen.

What I Read December 2019

I have a lot of books that are part way read, but I just couldn’t muster the time or interest to finish most of them. I really think there is a book I have forgotten as well, but seeing as how I’ve forgotten it, I can’t remember what that book is. So just two books finished this month, and one of them is a reread. Ehh, its fine.

The Harrowing of Gwynedd

Katherine Kurtz

I’ve now read three or four of Kurtz’s Deryni novels. No complete series, just random books from around this 15 book series. There is a lot in here that feels like it influenced Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, though that might just be that they were drawing on similar influences, namely medieval English history. I like these books; if I didn’t I wouldn’t keep buying them when the opportunity arises. But I tend to find them a little dry. They read a bit like histories. This one is one of the more depressing books I’ve read. It is the follow up to a trilogy that I have not read at all. A group of garbage nobles control the young king as his Regents. His twin brother and a group of rebels work to counter their evil.

It is the first book of a trilogy, and it doesn’t resolve a whole lot with that plot. But it does set up a lot to come. It is mostly the good guys scrambling to save who they can and try to survive until the young king comes of age and can rule on his own, if there is anything left at that time. It is relentless and depressing. There is a spiritual side of this story that does not resonate with me, but I think there is something there that I should be paying more attention to. I just can’t muster the interest to get into these books past the surface level. And that surface level is decently entertaining. Maybe if I had a full trilogy to get a whole story I would like them better.

A Crown of Swords

Robert Jordan

I read this along with a podcast. It is never going to be my favorite book in the series, but it one of my favorites in . . . I was going to write “the back half of the series,” but I just did the math and realized that this book is actually in the first half of the series. It is better than the three that follow it. It also doesn’t feel like a complete story like the first six books of the series did. I really like the Mat story in this book, as much as I think Jordan messed up with part of it. I have seen a lot of people have a very strong negative reaction to Mat’s relationship with Tylin. While I didn’t read it exactly the way they did, I think I might have the weaker read on it. This is me putting words in the writer’s mouth, but I think it was supposed to read a turning of the tables with Mat going from pursuer to the pursued, and that he is more shocked at the situation than genuinely upset by it. Reading now, though, it definitely comes off as more sexual assault-y than I found it reading it as a teenager. It is something that is really easy to fix in an adaptation without losing what I think is the intended commentary, which is flipping expected gender roles. But as it reads I don’t think it works.

Now Playing December 2019

Beaten

SteamWorld Dig 2 – I think I legitimately forgot this game was released until I found it on a Christmas eshop sale. I really wanted to play it on WiiU, which it was never released on. I don’t think it was originally released on 3DS either. I loved the first SteamWorld Dig game and I loved SteamWorld Heist. This game turns the fairly simple “dig straight down, bring stuff back up” of the first game into a full blown metroidvania. I loved it. The game really isn’t doing anything new or innovative, like Heist did, but it executes its formula incredibly well. There is something incredibly soothing about the rhythm of the game. Making a trip to dig up some gems and kill some monsters, going back up to sell what you find, buying some new equipment and power ups, lather, rinse, repeat. It is just kind of a perfect video game. No matter how many indie-ish metroidvania games we get, every time I play a good one I remember why these are so great. This is just a very good exercise in the genre.

Ongoing

Stella Glow – The same eShop sale that brought me SteamWorld Dig 2 also got me this game. I’m roughly a third of the way into it and it is fine. I don’t really have more to say about it than that. The battles are decent; there are some balance problems as it relates to character speed, but it mostly works fine. I recall some similar problems with this developer’s Luminous Arc games on the DS. The stuff around the story and characters is just above the most risible stuff that frequently appears in JRPGs. It keeps looking like it is going to be just kind of gross, but keeps itself from falling into the abyss.

Life is Strange – I cleared the first chapter of this game. It is really good. It is doing something I have not seen many games do, telling a kind of story that few games do. The game does so with a very obvious video game mechanic. Prince of Persia did this games rewind time thing in an action game 15 years ago. Here, it is put into a, so far, pretty mundane and thoughtful story. This is the kind of thing I want more of; games that push video games into places other than just violence.

Fire Emblem Warriors (3DS) – I was shopping for Christmas presents and bought this on amazon for next to nothing to give to my brother. It was only later that I recalled that he does not have a New 3DS to play it on. So I kept it. I’ve played five or six missions. The mix of Dynasty Warriors and Fire Emblem works surprisingly well. The menus are dense and not particularly well laid out. I will probably get through the story mode in January and basically call this game done. It is fun enough, worth the $10 I spent on it.

Judgment – I keep making a little progress in this game, loving it while I am playing it and then forgetting about it for weeks at a time after I turn it off. I think if I just let the game take me I would have the time of my life, but I have been too busy lately to really sit and enjoy it. Maybe in the new year. I did finally get to the drone races, which are simple and fun and I spent way too long with them.

Upcoming

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – I have a hankering to play this some more.

Code Name: STEAM – I got about halfway through this game a couple of years ago and I really just want to go back and finish it off.

Dragon Quest XI, Final Fantasy XV, Horizon: Zero Dawn – A trio of PS4 games I have started and just sort of lost track of. I really want to beat them, maybe not in January, but some time in 2020. In early 2020, because I am going to have a busy second half of the year. But I really want to beat some of these.