Rocketman

There has certainly been a little run of musician biopics lately, with the unaccountably successful Bohemian Rhapsody followed up by Netflix’s trashy, but probably better made despite the music not being as good The Dirt. Now comes Rocketman, a biopic about Elton John. Rocketman is the best of the bunch, but that is damning with faint praise.

The obvious comparison to Rocketman is Bohemian Rhapsody, a comparison that can only make Rocketman look good. Bohemian Rhapsody did a shoddy job telling a good story, but floated along on the good vibes of some truly excellent music. Rocketman attempts a similar trick. However, Rocketman incorporates music into the film fully, turning the biopic into a musical. Characters break out into song and songs replace dramatic moments. That helps hide the fact that otherwise this is a bog standard musical biopic.

I don’t mean to make light of the struggles that the real Elton John faced in his life, but if you were to list musical biopic cliches, this movie hits about all of them. Elton is a musical prodigy who struggles to connect with his parents. His dad seems to hate him, his mother is caught up in her own stuff. He meets up with a musical partner, starts to get famous and really gets into drugs.

Rocketman makes Bohemian Rhapsody’s success feel all the more underserved. This movie almost certainly will not be winning awards like Bohemian Rhapsody inexplicably did, even though it has a better star performance and is simply a better made movie. Bohemian Rhapsody is a pile of shoddy editing (I know it won best editing at the Oscars; inexplicable), inaccuracies, and biopic clichés that are soldered together with fortunately excellent music. I don’t know that Rocketman is accurate, because I don’t know Elton John’s history as well and I knew Queen’s and I didn’t know Queen’s all that well. But otherwise it is better than that previous movie.

Rocketman, at the very least, seems to know that what people came for was the music. So it turns a fairly standard biopic into a straight up music. Not as in that there are scenes of performances, which there are, or montages, also here, but it makes tells the story with music and actually has it characters sing outside of the performances. It works. The movie keeps throwing another Elton John hit at the viewer every 15 minutes or so, helping disguise the most standard musical biopic story since Dewey Cox.

I said up thread that this movie has a better star performance than Bohemian Rhapsody, and no offense to Rami Malek (whose win was less baffling, but no more correct), Taron Edgerton does a better job as John than his all affect turn as Mercury. Plus, Edgerton sings.

Rocketman isn’t a great movie. Again, but for some excellent music there isn’t much here to really recommend. But the music is the reason to make a movie about Elton John. As a delivery vehicle for nostalgia, there are worse ways to go about it.

**1/2

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Crash and Spyro

Caught up in a bout of nostalgia and suddenly having a bit of spending money, I decided to buy Spyro Reignited, the PS4 remasters of the original Spyro the Dragon games from the PSX. I remember really enjoying those games, or at least the first one and a demos of the other two, and haven’t really touched them in almost twenty years. Going on Amazon to buy it, I discovered that at that moment it was actually cheaper to buy the Spyro remasters bundled with the Crash Bandicoot remasters than it was to buy them on their own. I played less of Crash Bandicoot back in the day; I borrowed Crash 2 from a friend for a while and had a Crash 3 demo, but I while I remember enjoying them they didn’t leave much of an impression on me. But I still went the route of buying both, and I’m glad I did.

I’m not glad because it turned out the Crash Bandicoot games are better than I expected. I’m glad I did because it was simply fun to relive some teenage experiences. Honestly, I think the PSX/N64 generation gets short shrift. For the most part, the games don’t seem to hold the same nostalgic charm as their 2D predecessors and the limitations of the consoles make it hard to go back to them at times. There are exceptions. The idea that Super Mario 64 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time are all-time greats is etched in stone. A lot of PS1 RPGs are still well regarded. Every system has classics; what I am looking at are the also rans. Sure, people love Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man 2 on the NES, but you’ll also find people who love games like Shadow of the Ninja or Power Blade. People seem to have a lot of time for mid-list 8-bit and 16-bit games and I don’t see that same affection for early 3D titles. No one is singing the praises of Syphon Filter or Tenchu: Stealth Assassins.

Honestly, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon fall closer to the classics than the also rans in people’s memories, at least in my circle. But they also don’t get a lot of mention. There is a gap. I am guessing a lot of this is my subjective experience, if people really didn’t remember Crash or Spyro, why did their games get remasters? They were kings in the late zenith of the mascot platformer. Sonic ushered that age in, and 16-bit systems are littered with colorful animals having adventures. They didn’t really go away until well into the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox days. I remember Microsoft trying desperately to find such a mascot, attempts like Blinx the Time Sweeper, before realizing it was unnecessary. For four or five years, while the PSX ruled the gaming world, Crash and Spyro were on top, facing off against Mario and Banjo from Nintendo.

I remember those days fondly. I was definitely a Nintendo kid, though I did eventually have both a PSX and a N64. I was adamant that my mascot games were better than those on the other system. I told myself that while salivating over all the jrpgs that were hitting the PSX. Sure, they have Final Fantasy VII and Wild Arms, but I’ve got Banjo-Kazooie. It was nonsense, and it really only lasted until I got my own PSX and could play those games. By that time I was a little late for the early action adventure games, but I still played them some and was familiar with them from studious reading of EGM.

So while I didn’t play a lot of the games, I remembered Crash Bandicoot fondly. Here’s the thing: speaking only as to the first game in the series because I haven’t gotten to the others yet, Crash Bandicoot isn’t very good. Or at least, the remaster is not. It is colorful and charming and intermittently fun, but it is also sloppy, imprecise and limited. I am not sure the sloppy controls were part of the original game, but it feels like they were. When in the console wars trenches, I would poo-poo Crash Bandicoot for not really being 3D. Honestly, that is one of the games strengths. When everyone else was trying, and mostly failing, to be Super Mario 64, Crash Bandicoot carved out a smaller, more manageable niche. It puts everything in a tunnel and while still polygonal, does away with any sense of exploration. That is fine. I actually really like that about the game. It is the closest to being a classic platformer done in 3D around. The problem is that the game isn’t actually all that good. It is hard, especially when jumping in and out of the screen, to tell where you are going to land. Also, it is hard to tell how the game is going to interpret how you are going to land. Sometimes, you bounce on the turtle, sometimes you land directly in front of the turtle and are immediately killed. I gave up on the game at the Road to Nowhere level. The game is just not equipped to deal with the precise jumping that level requires, which means tons and tons of frustrating deaths and I don’t have time for that. I might go back to Crash Bandicoot eventually, but not until after I finish the other five games in this collection. I still have some fondness for Crash Bandicoot, but sometimes the past belongs in the past.

Counter to that is the first Spyro the Dragon. I know it is a game that came along a little later than Crash Bandicoot, but Spyro is a classic worthy of canonization. It is clearly taking a lot of cues from Super Mario 64, but also not just trying to be Super Mario 64. The quadrupedal, winged protagonist is one way the game has its own feel. Spyro holds up, largely I think thanks to its simplicity. While it Spyro the Dragon is clearly following in the footsteps of Mario 64. Spyro has an effective but not particularly expansive moveset. He can breathe fire and he can charge. Those two skills set up the bulk of his options when dealing with obstacles. Some enemies must be burned, some must be rammed, others can be dealt with by either. The game slowly starts layering these together, with rooms filled with a mix of enemies, some that need to be dealt with one way and some the other. It adds in enemies that change form. It really taxes the player’s ability to recognize the threat and deal with it.

The only other skill in Spryo’s arsenal is the ability to glide. A second press of the jump button allows the little winged dragon to glide around, greatly expanding his mobility. This is where a lot of Spyro’s tricky platforming comes in, with much being tied to his ability to get somewhere high up and float to a place he could not reach before. There are also supercharge lanes, which propel Spyro to ridiculous speeds with his charge, and using those to launch him to distant, otherwise unreachable hidden areas. That is essentially the one expert technique in the game. The rest of them are just the moves that you have at the start continuing on.

Wisely, the game makes almost none of the difficult sections of the game mandatory to getting through it. That is in contrast to the strictly linear nature of Crash Bandicoot. In Crash, you have one level in front of you and the ability to replay the levels you’ve previously beaten. In Spyro, new stages unlock as you cross completion barriers. Sometimes you can’t go on until you rescue 50 dragons, sometimes it takes a certain number of found gems. It effectively gates the player without ever forcing the player to bash their heads against a particularly tough challenge until the player decides to walk away from the game instead.

With both Crash and Spyro, the remasters look great. They do that excellent trick of looking like you remember the games looked rather than actually looking like the games did look. Because your memories are not accurate. Nintendo did this with their 3DS Zelda remakes; they still look like N64 games without actually looking like N64 games.

The PSX/N64 generation was a time of great experimentation, as everyone struggled to understand how to make polygonal games. Some took to it like a duck to water, others struggled themselves out of existence. The great disparity in quality of games I think has lead people to discount a lot of games from that era. The small handful that are recognized as classics still get love, but most of the rest are ignored and forgotten. Spyro and Crash are right on the edge; I don’t see people sing their praises with the Ocarina of Times or the Metal Gear Solids, but they aren’t really forgotten; they did get modern remasters. But if games that were as popular as these were are as little thought of as they are, it does not bode well for the mid-tier stuff behind them. I’m done with Spyro the Dragon (and got my first platinum trophy with it) and probably done with Crash Bandicoot. I’ve got two more of each. After a few weeks off I’ll revisit Spyro 2: Ripto’s Revenge and Crash 2: The Wrath of Cortex to see how these two series evolved after their first outings.

Late Night

Late Night follows the general outline of a romantic comedy. The twist is that this pairing is not a romantic couple, but a boss and employee. Though the movie follows that familiar shape, they are not romantically linked at all. It works surprisingly well.

Emma Thompson stars a Katherine Newberry, the long-time star of a late night talk show who the new studio head is forcing out of her role. She doesn’t make a great first impression, she seems very complacent and a little disinterested in her show. She has never even met most of the writers that work for the show. When it is brought to her attention that she has no women writing for her show, she instructs her producer to hire a woman writer to fill a newly opened vacancy. Mindy Kaling plays Molly, the new writer who gets that job. She is a recent blue collar worker who aspires to be a comedian and idolizes Katherine.

There are struggles. Molly struggles with her new job, getting to know the ins and outs of her profession and dealing with a lack of respect from her coworkers. Katherine, newly reinvigorated about keeping her job, struggles to understand a new generation. Soon it becomes clear that Molly, who is a fan of Katherine’s older, more successful material, is one of the best at helping Katherine connect with the audience she is seeking without coming off as condescending.

It really does mostly follow a rom-com structure. They meet and initially clash. Then they learn how well they work together. Then there is a third act separation, where they both try to get along without each other before the big reunion near the end. It is a platonic rom-com. The structure works surprisingly well, largely thanks to the performances of Kaling and Thompson. Thompson seems like a real late night host in her cadence and comfort on stage. She is also believable demanding and slightly out of touch. Kaling is terrific as the peppy and generally upbeat newcomer who, for the most part, refuses to let the vagaries of the job get her down.

It really succeeds by making its two lead roles fully realized people, even if no one else it. Katherine has a history, a husband who is succumbing to an incurable disease and some indiscretions. Molly is a little naive but not stupid. She is inexperienced, but she is also hardworking. She refuses to be talked down to, but does not refuse to learn. The understanding between the two of them feels natural. I also like that the change that Katherine has to go through is not changing who she is, but simply doing better of showing who she is, a skill she seems to have lost through her struggles with her husband and his disease, and just simply growing old. It isn’t that she needs to dumb down her show, as the first instict is, but to more clearly communicate its goals.

Late Night is also a comedy that at least seems to have something to say. It isn’t deep or profound, but there is a message here about sex and age and class. It doesn’t beat the viewer over the head with a message (which can be a very good thing, see Sorry to Bother You), but it is undeniably there. The movie is just a solid, refreshing bit of summer fun.

****

1000th Post

This is the 1000th post I’ve written on this blog. Well, 1000th post; I did do a month of strictly image posts about 8 years ago. With this milestone approaching, I’ve been looking back on what I’ve written and thinking about what I want to do in the future. My first thought was to just close up shop, disappear as unnoticed now as when I started. If I had some other outlet, I might have done that. But I’ve got a half dozen posts ready to go in the hopper, so at least for now I intend to keep plugging away. So here are 1000 words reflecting on 1000 posts.

What I’ve written over the last 8 or so years is different from what I imagined. What I imagined was me doing what all the popular sites I was reading were doing all by myself. At first I wanted to do TV reviews in the style of the AV Club, but I was getting in on the end of that train; the AV Club even cut back on their TV reviews not long after. Early on I outlined an ambitious plan to do recaps of my favorite shows, a list that is remarkably similar to what that list would look like today, and I got through a season of Futurama. The problem is that they were all comedies, shows without meaningful serialization or plot to examine. Writing about comedy shows is harder than I imagined; explaining jokes is not interesting and it only serves to make the jokes less funny. Without a lot of plot or character development, there wasn’t much to analyze. I always had an idea to start that back up again, likely focusing on different shows, like the CW DC shows, but I really don’t think I will.

I will continue to write about TV, though. I am intending to do more in depth writing about TV seasons as they end. Too often I write a short blurb in monthly post about how much I enjoyed a TV show and add a bit about writing more about it later, knowing that that will never happen. I want to try to make it happen. Also, I want to get some words down about my favorite shows, even if they aren’t episode reviews. I’ve already done that for a few (like Parks and Rec and The Office) but I will get to more. My movie reviews aren’t exactly what I intended when I started, but I am reasonably happy with them. I don’t see how I do them changing, though again I do intend to write more about older stuff.

My Video Game Archeology series was me biting real hard into Retronauts shtick, but even when I started people were moving to YouTube for video game stuff. That is one that might see a return. I’ve got a list of 8 and 16-bit (as well as a few N64/PS1) games that I’ve always wanted to try; it is entirely possible I might go back and give that a go. Otherwise, I will stay the course with my dwindling video game playing and writing time. This blog ended up being a lot more contemporary than I intended. I wanted to write about the things I loved, and at the time I was more inclined to spend time with old favorites than seek out new ones. For nearly a decade I replayed some of my favorite games at least once a year; the trio of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI and Suikoden 2. I’ve mentioned the list of posts I intended to write that I made up before starting this blog before. (I’ll share that list below.) Keeping in mind that I made that list circa 2010, there is a lot on there that I have no idea what I intended to write about and a lot on there that I no longer have any intention of writing about. However, there is very little on that list that was new at the time, especially in the video games department.

I wrote about sports for a time, but my time as an intense sports fan is kind of past. Shake-ups to the college sports landscape, revelations about head trauma in the NFL and the like have kind of put me at a bit of a distance from sports that I didn’t feel in my early 20s. I still watch plenty of basketball, football and baseball, but I can’t honestly say that I care like I used to. Some of my favorite sports memories have happened while I was writing this blog, even if I didn’t write about them. I started a thing about baseball and the Royals after the 2014 season ended in a World Series defeat, and I had another one after the 2015 World Series victory. But I couldn’t really get my thoughts into words. I’m not saying I’ll never write about sports on this blog again, but look how long it’s been since I did.

I don’t have a lot to say about books and comics, I will keep writing about them as I read them and that’s about it. Maybe some more in depth features, maybe not.

I also don’t know that I’m proud of my work on this blog. In preparing for this post, I thought I would go back and find my favorite things that I’ve written, forgetting that I hate everything I’ve ever written. I can pick out some favorite experiences, if not posts. Book: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde. Movie: Mad Max Fury Road. Game: Breath of the Wild. I don’t know that any of those are my best writing, but those are the best things I’ve written about.

Having the blog was a way to make my time working at jobs that didn’t matter seem less pointless. But my work isn’t so pointless anymore and I don’t know that my writing has actually improved. So who knows what the future holds.

Continue reading

What I Watched June 2019

Movies

Backdraft 2 – I don’t know why someone thought we needed a sequel to mid-tier hit from the 90’s; we didn’t. This movie is shockingly competent, if not especially good. I mean, it is full blown nonsense and I can’t recommend it to anybody. But I kind of enjoyed a bit. **

Hot Fuzz – Yup, I still love it. *****

Murder Mystery – I can’t remember the last time I genuinely enjoyed an Adam Sandler movie. This movie almost leans into the criticisms of Sandler movies being an excuse to take a vacation on the production company’s dime, but it somehow works. There just appears to be more effort put in here, on the scripting and directing, than other movies. It isn’t the best mystery I’ve ever seen, but is just kind of works. This movie isn’t great, but I think it is slightly on the side of good. ***

Good Sam – Just a straight up Hallmark romance movie. I watched it for Tiya Sircar, who I knew from The Good Place. There is no reason to watch this movie. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes, but I don’t know why you would. **

Planes, Trains and Automobiles – This movie kind of sneaks up on you. This movie does a good job of keeping the viewer’s sympathy in between Martin and Candy. Martin’s character could have been more hateful, but you see from the start that he is actually a good guy who is getting stressed. Candy’s is kind of insufferable, but even early on he seems like a generally decent guy. The whole movie just worms its way into your affections. There aren’t many Thanksgiving movies, but with one this good do we need any others. ****1/2

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – This movie holds up shockingly well. The turtles still look good; those are some excellent special effects. Maybe there is too much nostalgia for me to adequately judge this movie, but I think it is genuinely excellent. ****

Wheels on Meals – Hey, you know who is great? Jackie Chan. You know who else is great? Sammo Hung. One final great thing: this movie. It is just so full of energy, such great fight choreography. The fight near the end it just excellent. I loved this movie. ****1/2

Rocketman – Read Review here.

Yesterday – Read Review here.

Late Night – Read Review here.

TV

Documentary Now S3 – I’ve really liked everything I’ve seen from this series. The third season expands things somewhat. Instead of all of the fake documentaries involving Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, there are a lot of guest stars, from Michael Keaton to Cate Blanchett to John Mulaney. There is also still a lot of Fred Armisen. These are still pitch perfect fake documentaries. They are funny, but there is also a humanity there. Even the subjects that are the source of comedy get a touch of empathy before the end. This show is just pretty much everything I want out of television.

When They See Us – Is this a TV mini-series or a nearly four hour movie broken up into smaller chunks? It doesn’t matter. What it is is one of the best things you can watch on any screen. When They See Us tells the story of the Central Park 5, a group of young black and Hispanic boys railroaded by the New York police and wrongfully convicted of rape and assault. This show digs in and tells the story from their heartbreaking perspective. It shows how the cultural climate of the time, egged on in part by a degenerate con man, a rapist himself, who called for their death before any evidence was shown, helped lead to this miscarriage of justice. It shows the struggles of their families as they try to get through it. It shows how the stigma followed them afterwards until they were able to prove their innocence. It is wonderfully acted, wonderfully shot, and completely heartbreaking. This is just one of the best things of the year.

Good Omens – I really wish I had encountered this book, and more Terry Pratchett in general, when I was younger. I’ve got it on my kindle and expect to enjoy it when I finally get around to it, but judging by this show it is something that would have really made an impact on me as a teenager. If I was prepared to handle it; there is still some part of my very conservative, fundamentalist Christian upbringing existing that recoils at the blasphemy here. I unabashedly love this show. Michael Sheen and David Tennant are great as the central angel and demon who are trying to prevent the apocalypse that is supposedly the plan of both sides, motivated by concerns like how hard it will be to get a good meal when all the humans are dead. Around them are a ton of other interesting, and more vital to the eventual outcome, characters, like the young woman with the book of always correct prophesies or the new witch-hunter who has problems with technology. The central conflict rest on the shoulders of a normal young boy who, it turns out, is the antichrist. It is a perfect combination of cleverness and irreverence.

Jessica Jones S3 – I’ve got a big post-mortem about the entire Marvel Netflix project in the works, waiting only on me finishing the third season of Daredevil, so I will have more to say about this there. For now, I’ll say that season 3 of Jessica Jones is a bounce back after the near disaster of season 2. It does have a complete dud of a villain, but the conflicts between its primary cast are good and believable. I don’t really like where it left things, but that is where it had to leave things after the season that was.

Hanna – I really can’t say why I stuck with this to the end. It’s not bad; it is actually quite well produced, but the show never really clicked with me. The central plot, of genetically engineered super-soldier that just happens to be a young girl, is a lot more interesting in theory than in practice.

What I Read in June 2019

Even though I had the whole month with no school to take up my time, I still only managed to read two books in June. A large part of that was that I got the idea to do a chapter by chapter read through of a book, kind of to try that format of reread out, and discovered it slowed my reading speed to a crawl. I might still go through with the project, though it will be different than I intended since instead of reading a chapter or two of a book I barely remembered, I blew through the first two books of the series. I will finish that series, see below, and probably another book or two next month, including a book I’ve been reading for more than a year.

The Scions of Shannara

Terry Brooks

I was a big Brooks fan for a couple of years about a decade and a half ago. Since then I’ve grown solidly disinterested in his stuff. However, the “Heritage of Shannara” series, in my mind, was the part of his overarching Shannara saga that was the good part. This quartet of books have long been on my reread stack. They were going to be (and maybe still will be) the subject of an ongoing feature on my blog as I reread them. Spoilers: I am not coming out of this reread with as strong affection for these books as I went in with.

Scions meanders. It is primarily an adventure tale, with a lot of hooks that should excite me, but it feels so much like just generic, bargain basement fantasy. Everything is so obvious. If a character appears evil, they are evil. Characters might be deceptive, but the book never is. It kind of kills the suspense and intrigue that feels like it should be a part of the book. Everything is just so on the surface. The Four Lands are in trouble, and the shade of the Druid Allanon has called the children of the Shannara bloodline to try to save it. They are Par Ohmsford, who has the ability to sing illusions with the wishsong, and his brother Coll, Wren Ohmsford, about whom nothing is learned in this book, and Walker Boh, the Dark Uncle is as yet vague magical powers. They are each given a task, and the book follows the brothers as they attempt to recover the Sword of Shannara. Its fine, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of meat on these bones.

The biggest disappointment is a story hook that almost always lands for me but mostly didn’t here; the conflict between brothers Par and Coll. Usually, that sort of conflict is really my thing, here I don’t get a strong enough feel for the characters to make it work.

The Druid of Shannara

Terry Brooks

The second book does not fix the problems I had with the first book in this series. Honestly, it sort of abandons everything set up in the first volume. Yes, it deals with some of the same characters, but this feels like a side story. Walker Boh was given one task; this book that focuses on him has him dealing with a very different task. It also continues with very obvious characters. There is no development or change for anybody.

The book starts with the mystical King of the Silver River creating an elemental ‘daughter’ Quickening and sending her out on a quest. That quest will help Walker Boh accomplish his own, separate quest. Walker is one of the three people that Quickening needs to accomplish her goal. The others are the somewhat despondent Morgan Leah, who lost his magic sword in the last book, and Pe Ell. Pe Ell is introduced as an evil assassin. And that is what he is. The end, no moral. The book mostly seems an excuse for Brooks to play up the post-apocalyptic nature of the world, and to sow the seeds to connect Shannara to another of his book series. His best stuff is coming up with disgusting and unfathomable monsters that the heroes can’t fight. He does just enough of that here to keep the quest interesting, even if it feels inconsequential.

Now Playing June 2019

Beaten

Yakuza 6 Read about it here. Goodbye Kazuma Kiryu

Spyro the Dragon – I’ve got the Reignited Remasters. Full post coming soon.

Ongoing

Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth – I hate to say this, but I am not really feeling this game. It kind of feels like the worst of both worlds when combining SMT/Persona and Etrian Odyssey. They tried to jazz the map making up with some of Persona 5’s style, but they succeeded only in making the whole process infinitely more tedious. The game starts you with the Persona 5 crew, understandably, minus the characters you’d actually want to play as (meaning no Makoto) and one strange, atonal addition. The game also just inundates the player with pointless text. Everything is over-explained and every character feels the need to pipe up at every opportunity. I don’t see how adding two more games’ worth of cast is going to fix things. I’ve just unlocked the Persona 4 crew and this has not improved. The battles at this point, when I don’t really have a lot of skills to work with, have been slogs.

Crash Bandicoot –

I gave up on this about halfway through and I have a sizable post about it in the pipeline. I was playing the PS4 N-Sane Trilogy remaster. I hope the sequels are better.

Horizon: Zero Dawn – This is very much a modern open world game. Strong shades of Assassin’s Creed. It is also, apparently, a modern WRPG. Experience levels, skill trees, the works. The only thing that differentiates this from Bioware’s stuff is in how it is presented. I am liking it; I just cleared the first chapter and the world has opened up. I could see myself losing a lot of time in this game.

Judgment – I think I’ve made it perfectly clear that I love the Yakuza series. A game in that world, but you instead play a lawyer turned detective who is investigating crimes sounds like the best thing in the world to me. And maybe it is, I haven’t played enough of Judgment to decide one way or the other. I will say that it doesn’t make the best first impression. I just finished playing Yakuza 6, and this game clearly shares a lot of DNA with that one. However, in putting in the new investigation elements, it feels like it has fractured the experience. Things just feel a lot less fluid than they do in Yakuza. The most obvious example is running. In Yakuza you hold a button to run; in Judgment you push a button to essentially toggle run on and I have yet to find a way to stop running outside of stopping moving altogether.

Upcoming

Sword Coast Legends – I enjoyed the time I spent with this last year and I’m tired of it taking up space on my PS4 harddrive, so I think I am going to rush through it before I really get into Judgment.

Wii Game – I had Epic Mickey on here a few months ago and I might make another attempt at that. I’ve also got a solid list of games I have either never played or barely played.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West – I was long intrigued by this game, but when I finally bought it I barely got started on it before kind of just giving up it up. I want to get back to it. I have several other PS3 games I’d like to knock off my backlog, so I might try something else out.

What I Watched May 2019

Movies:

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

The Hustle – read review here. **1/2

Long Shot – read review here. ****

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

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

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

Detective Pikachu – read review here. ****

John Wick 3 – read review here. *****

Tolkien – read review here. ***1/2

Aladdin – read review here. ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Godzilla King of the Monsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

Yakuza 6 The Song of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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