Now Playing February 2020

Beaten

My World, My Way – read about it here. I am still a little shocked about how much I enjoyed this game, and how much I miss the days when weird experimental games like this could be released.

Ongoing

Yakuza 3 – I got started with this and I am going to see it through. I was quickly reminded of what I loved about this game nearly a decade ago. The game does a great job of starting with something of a bait and switch. Instead of diving back into the world of crime from the first two games, and instead starts the player in a new area and tasks them with solving the problems with a gang of orphans. It starts with a couple of hours of Kiryu simply playing dad. I haven’t yet hit the part where it turns and becomes more of a classic Yakuza game.

Dragon Quest XI – More slow progress with this game. It is kind of my ideal of a modern jrpg, but I don’t have the time to sink into the extended play sessions that do this game the most justice. Still, I am going to keep making what progress I can with this game. I just did the mermaid quest and it was pretty heartbreaking. Just a tragedy of errors all around.

Double Dragon and Kunio-kun Retro Brawler Bundle – This is a pretty impressive package. Sixteen games, some of them with different versions. These are not games that most people have played a lot. The Double Dragon games were very popular back in the day, especially the first one. I have always been a huge fan of River City Ransom. Most of the rest of the games are lesser known or have never been released in the United States. I have been a big fan of the Kunio games since I first played River City Ransom and World Cup Soccer on the NES and I can’t wait to get into all of these different games. So far, I have played a ton of Double Dragon, which is much harder than I remembered. Or maybe I do remember it being this hard, because I made just about as far as my memories of the game go. I’ve also played some of the hockey game, which isn’t as enjoyable as I remember soccer being, but it is still pretty fun.

Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers – This game is a tough one to get back into after some time away. I am used to the more modern SMT games, and this game does not have some of the quality of life improvements of later games in the series. I don’t really know what I was doing or where I was going. I don’t know what I am doing with my roster of demons. I am not quite sure what I am doing with character progression or where I am in the story. I think I will push through. I do like a lot of this game, it is just a little unfriendly at times.

Upcoming

River King: A Wonderful Journey – This has been sitting on my shelf for years, and for some reason, likely related to the game below, I’ve been feeling some strange pull to put this in and give it a go. Maybe during Spring Break

Rune Factory 4 – Now that I’ve finished My World, My Way, I am moving on to other DS/3DS games that I have not yet finished. I’ve cleared a decent amount of Rune Factory 4 already, but I have trouble balancing the forward momentum of exploring the dungeons and doing the farming and community building stuff. But I’m in the mood for some of the low key pleasures of this sort of game.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

The narrative that DC is flailing and Marvel has got it figured out is so solidly ingrained now that I don’t see it changing. It doesn’t matter that Marvel’s movies look and feel more homogeneous as they go. Or maybe that is part of their popularity. It doesn’t matter that DC is doing stuff that is weird and good. Once Batman v. Superman came out and people didn’t like it, the narratives were set. DC will always be chasing Marvel, no matter how different the approaches and final products. Warner Brothers has put out some really good DC movies over the last year, mostly using an approach of simply making the best film for each character. Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam were all excellent and, no matter my complete disdain for it, Joker really resonated with people. Birds of Prey continues this, while salvaging the best part of Suicide Squad.

Birds of Prey follows Harley Quinn as she breaks up with the Joker. As abusive and toxic as that relationship was, she learns that her proximity to the most feared criminal in Gotham had granted her a measure of protection that she took for granted. Especially with night club owner and criminal Roman Sionis. Once she is no longer untouchable, he comes after her to get revenge for several petty slights. Luckily for Harley, he is in need of help. Help finding an important jewel, which was stolen from his henchman Zsasz but a young pickpocket named Cassandra Cain. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other people out to get her before Harley does. One is Gotham cop Renee Montoya, who has been trying to take down Sionis for years. Another is the mysterious Huntress, who showed up out of nowhere and started shooting people with a crossbow. And finally there is Dinah Lance, a night club singer who is finally fed up with Sionis.

The story is told from the perspective of the somewhat addled Harley Quinn, so it moves in fits and starts at times. She is telling the story as it goes, and sometimes goes back to tell it in a different way. The disjointed nature of the opening hour works in the film’s favor as it slowly introduces characters and shows scenes from different points of view. In all, the structure calls to mind early Guy Ritchie movies like Snatch, where various groups of criminals bounce off each other in unpredictable ways.

The movie shines in one area especially: the fights scenes. Supposedly John Wick director Chad Stahleski helped with the fight scenes and it shows. They don’t match that series for inventiveness or impact, but the fight scenes here are a cut above most action movies, let alone most superhero movies. Birds of Prey’s action has weight. The scenes are frequently over the top, even silly, but that fits in perfectly with the movie they are making. They are a deadly, ridiculous ballet. The fight in the police station is great and the big one at the end is just masterful.

It also shines with characters. Margot Robbie continues to be excellent as Harley Quinn. The character is seen somewhat as DC’s version of Deadpool, and there is some truth to that. Like Reynolds with that character, Robbie perfectly embodies Harley Quinn. Also, it is a taste that is not for everyone. The Birds of Prey stray a little further from their comic counterparts, but they all get the cores of their characters right. Montoya is a good cop pushed just a bit too far by the corruption of Gotham. She wants to do the right thing, but is so disillusioned with the system that it is starting to break her. As we are introduced to her here, played by the excellent Rosie Perez, she is starting to crack, but her heart’s in the right place. Huntress, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is pretty much straight from the comics. A mafia princess coming back to get revenge on the people who killed her parents. She is a somewhat twisted version of Batman that, in the comics, eventually broke good. The new addition is her social awkwardness, an understandable development for a person who spent most of her life training to get revenge. Then there is Dinah Lance, Black Canary, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who we do not get enough of but has the best arc outside of Harley. She starts as someone who ignores the damage happening to people around her, until it is so in her face that she can’t ignore it. As the movie goes along, she becomes more committed to fighting against it.

The only fly in the ointment is Cassandra, who bears absolutely no resemblance to the comic character. She is almost as much of a mcguffin as the diamond she stole, but mostly works as a sort of kid sidekick to the whole cast, though she ends up in Harley’s orbit for most of the movie.

I’ll admit to being enough of a comic nerd that seeing characters I like on the big screen is still something of a thrill for me, especially when they are character who have not been there before. DC’s B and C list characters are some of my favorites, so seeing Huntress and Black Canary was fun in and of itself. However, Birds of Prey is firing on all cylinders. It has great action, a good sense of humor, and some really great character work. I loved it.

****1/2

What I Watched January 2020

Movies

Before I get into these movies, I am going to note that I spent a large portion of January cleaning out my Netflix queue, watching all of the movies that had been sitting on my list for years without being watched. So some of those are just getting a score with nothing more. Those will be up first, then my usual quick reviews.

Becoming Jane – ***

Someone Great – ***1/2

Kate and Leopold – ***

The Little Mermaid (2018) – **

Colonia – **½

Red Sea Diving Resort – **

God of War – **

Moonwalkers – **½

Rattlesnake – **

Yucatan – **

Clouds of Sils Maria – ****

The Brawler – *

The Men Who Stare at Goats – ***

Fullmetal Alchemist – **

The Fighter – ****

District 9 – ****

IO – **½

Pegasus – **½

Unicorn Store – **

The Talented Mr. Ripley – ***½

Detective Dee and the Four Heavenly Kings – ***

Knives Out – see review here. *****

The Hateful Eight: Extended Edition – I reviewed this movie before, but I watched this extended edition that is broken into four episodes as a mini-series. It still plays. This is a great, if thoroughly unpleasant, film. I don’t know that I need to watch this nearly four hour long version very often, but it is a wholly entertaining experience. *****

Kabaneri and the Iron Fortress: Battle of Unato – This is another movie split into episodes for Netflix. I moved it up here because it definitely functions more as a movie than a miniseries. I think this would be better if I knew the series; as it is it is a mildly enjoyable animated action movie. ***

Casa de mi Padre – This movie is certainly not for everybody. Will Ferrell stars in a fairly straight attempt at Mexican telenovela. It just pushes things further away from reality at every turn. It is tuned to a very specific sense of humor, which fortunately for me is one I share. This is Ferrell in his strangest mode and I love it. The artificiality of everything just makes it work. ****1/2

Hell or High Water – I absolutely loved this movie. Two brothers, who own a farm that is about to be foreclosed on by the bank, take to robbing small bank branches for small amounts of money. Though it is set in modern times, it plays out like an old Western. Especially as the law men come after the brothers. Despite their actions, your sympathies generally lie with the brothers. Especially with Chris Pine, whose plan this is and is doing it to help his ex-wife and kids. I loved everything about this movie all around. *****

A Serious Man – This was one of the few Coen Brothers movies I hadn’t seen. It is good. Not my favorite, but very good. It is calls to mind the book of Job, with terrible things happening to the main character for no rhyme or reason. ****1/2

End of Watch – I absolutely hated this movie. No part of it worked for me. Certainly not the most egregious, but one of the most obvious reasons, is how it handled the camera. It pretends that the cops are shooting it themselves, but most of the time there is no one holding the camera. It just shows laziness in how the movie was made, which is evident throughout the movie, despite the best efforts of Gyllenhal and Pena. 1/2

Ni No Kuni – I haven’t played the game that this movie is based on, so I don’t know if it reflects the story from that or is largely original, but it is fine. I generally enjoyed it. It feels like it leaves a lot of interesting story on the table, with a lot of possibilities introduced and not fully explored. ***

The Wandering Earth – A big Chinese science fiction movie that largely plays out like a reverse Armageddon. It is entertaining on that level. ***

1917 – read review here. ****

Little Women – read review here. *****

Steel Rain – This one is wild. It involves a plot to assassinate the leaders of North Korea that nearly spirals out into nuclear war. You’ve got a schlubby guy with a failing marriage from South Korea teamed up with a soldier from the North trying to stop things before it spirals into an even bigger catastrophe. It is wild, but interesting. ***

Troop Zero – I don’t know that this movie quite works. It is a weird throwback to some kind of 80s comedy, relying on cute moppets and unreliable parental figures. Troop Zero goes weird with it. It works because it has some specificity, but sometimes it is just too out there. I enjoyed this more than I didn’t, but I don’t think it will stick with me. It certainly seems like something a certain group of kids will fall in love with.***
A Kind of Murder – This is just a straight up noir. It is just a thoroughly competent genre exercise. Patrick Wilson is always great, and this is no different. He is a writer whose wife gets killed. Killed in the same manner as a bookseller’s wife. The police suspect a connection, and Wilson keeps lying to the cops to cover up an affair. It is pretty entertaining. ***

Just Mercy – read review here. ***1/2

The Gentlemen – read review here. ****

The Perfection – Okay, this is a strange thriller/horror movie. I don’t know that I actually liked it all that much, but it is certainly very well made. It keeps the viewer on their toes and gets pretty gross at times. ***1/2

Manhunt – A wild conspiracy thriller from John Woo. You’ve got false accusations, super soldier drugs, gun fights with two heroes handcuffed together. It is very entertaining. ***1/2

Kung Fu Yoga – This movie is essentially Jackie Chan as Indiana Jones, in a China/India collaboration. The movie isn’t very good, but Jackie Chan has still got it. ***

Raging Bull – This is a movie that puts a man’s ugliness on display and just lets it go. It is well made and well acted and just kind of amazing. I’ll likely never watch it again. *****

Justice, My Foot – I have really enjoyed Stephen Chow movies in the past, and finding this one from the 90’s on Netflix was intriguing. It is mostly fine. There is some stuff that has aged very badly, (which isn’t the right way to frame it, as it is not like any of the tasteless jokes were ever good) like some straight up homophobia. Otherwise, it is a fun, silly legal period piece. I enjoyed it. **1/2

TV

Voltron S7-8 – I really enjoyed the first six or so seasons of this show a few years ago, but they pumped out the seasons faster than I could watch them and I just fell off. I circled back around early this year and finished the show off. This is a really good show that mostly sticks the landing. I see why they killed off the character they did at the end, but it doesn’t sit quite right. Still, this show is really good. I am glad I came back to it.

You S2 – The first season of You had this kind of enthralling quality to it, as Joe was so clearly a monster, even if he didn’t realize it himself, and you were watching for it to unravel. Then it kind of doesn’t. Season 2 is probably where I am done with it, because I really don’t care to see anymore of Joe. I can only watch a monster for so long as he slowly wriggles through cracks before I am just done with it. Here he finds a new group of people to latch onto and slowly destroys them, even as they destroy themselves. It ends with a twist that will keep the show going for at least another season.

Lost In Space S2 – I think this is as good as this show is going to be, which is a largely pretty good family scifi show. It is generally enjoyable, but the exciting moments of escape and adventure are sometimes mired in interpersonal relationships that simply are not as interesting. It builds along several episode long arcs that feel a little padded, instead of just telling more focused, interesting stories. Still, I like it quite a bit.

Medical Police – A spin-off of Children’s Hospital. I don’t know what to say. It is a parody of doctor shows and a parody of police procedurals and a parody of something like 24. It is a lot of fun and incredibly stupid. One of the highlights of the year so far.

Violet Evergarden – This is emotional manipulation, the series. Violet is an auto memory doll, a person who writes letters for people who, for whatever reason, cannot write them themselves. She does this work in part because it helps her, a former child soldier with little social development, better understand people. The show parades mostly sad stories in front of the viewer as Violet learns about emotions. I am being too harsh, it is mostly a pretty good show, though it feels a little truncated.

Living With Yourself – This was an interesting little show with Paul Rudd playing a man who goes to a spa that, unbeknownst to him, clones him. The spa’s business involves killing the original and replacing them with the refreshed and improved clone. But the original version of Paul Rudd survives, which leads to the two of them having to work to coexist. I don’t have a lot to say about it; it is mostly pleasant and enjoyable. Like Paul Rudd is in just about everything. I would watch more if they make it.

The Family – This documentary spins itself in circles a little, but it does illuminate the quasi-Christian fundementalist that have been working for half a century to influence American politics. It is religion removed from morality and, as presented here, simply gross. This is not the best made documentary series ever, but it is pretty enjoyable.

Carole and Tuesday – The second half of this music themed anime. This half of the season ends up with the duo being somewhat involved with the politics of future Mars, while also just trying to make their music and capitalize off their success in the competition from the first half of the show. It remains mostly good.

Spinning Out – A melodrama about figure skaters. One family, an overbearing, bipolar mother and her two daughters as well as a rich man, his sons and his new wife. Kaya Scodelario is the elder daughter, who is struggling to recover from a traumatic injury. She is also realizing that she shares her mother’s mental health problems. Added on to that, she has recently switched from singles to doubles. There is a sports show happening, but it often gets relegated to the background for some over the top melodrama. Which is fine, that is what the show is. It just also isn’t really for me.

Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez – This is a solid look into the toxic collection of circumstances that led to the creation of a man like Aaron Hernandez. From CTE, to homophobia, to just the culture around football that allowed him to get away with whatever he wanted. It is chilling and more than a little sad, for many reasons.

Sex Education S2 – This continues to be very good show. I am still confused by the setting, which is a strange mishmash of current and something out of the 90s, America and England. This season expands the scope of the show greatly, moving the focus off Otis and Maeve somewhat and allowing more characters to have more developed stories. That lets the show tell a lot more stories, but it loses something in the exchange. I think it improves the show.

Dracula – The team behind Sherlock have brought that same approach to Dracula. The first two episodes are really good. Those first two episodes are interesting reimaginings of the novel, keeping certain aspects, while radically changing others. Much like Sherlock. I think things really fall apart in the third episode. Much like Sherlock. The whole ride is worth taking, even if the final part doesn’t work at all.

Watership Down – Great voice cast, good story, miserable animation. This show is just ugly. I don’t have much more to say.

The Good Place – It ended near the start of February, so hold me to having more to say next month, but this is one of the best shows of the last few years. Absolutely amazing from start to finish.

Cyborg 009: Call of Justice – The story of this show is fine, as far as justifications for cyborgs fighting ancient mutants goes. What does not work is the cg animation. The Cyborg 009 characters have pretty distinctive design, which is washed away here for generically ugly cg. The show is just kind of a pain to look at, which means it is harder to care for the story.

CW DC Shows – Basically, January mostly had the second half of Crisis on Infinite Earths. It was really good, and if I write about the end of Arrow I’ll have more to say about it.

Now Playing January 2020

Beaten

Judgment – read about it here.

Life is Strange – This game came highly recommended to me, but I was a little leery going into it. It presents as mostly an adventure game, a genre I’ve had a lot of problems with. While that is the correct classification, it plays more like a slow motion action game. I have long been disappointed that the only way most video games have to interact with through violence, so one thing I loved about Life is Strange is that it is largely free of that. Not that there aren’t violent things happening, this game gets pretty dark, but most of what you do is just have conversations. I don’t know that Life is Strange really breaks through any barriers that keep video games in their bubble, but it at least pushes the edges.

It also tells a pretty interesting story. I know there are several paths through the game, with differing eventual ends, but the one I got was pretty affecting. The two tracks of the plot are the mystery of the disappearance of Rachel Amber, which digs into the small town darkness of the setting, and of Max’s discovery of her power to rewind time and change the past. While Max has this power, it doesn’t really connect with the mystery. Mostly it serves to put Max in increasingly untenable situations. Every new chapter deepens what came before. Most of the characters at first appear black or white, only for the game to reveal depth and grays as it goes along. It never really diminishes some of the awful things that characters do, but it does explain them. The characters end up largely feeling like real people; it is an amazing achievement.

I didn’t love this game quite as much as some people I know, but damn if it wasn’t an excellent experience, one I might feel like revisiting in a few years.

Ongoing

Codename STEAM – A project I have this year is beating a bunch of DS and 3DS games I’ve started but not finished over the last decade or so. That means that a lot of games will be cycling through here. Codename STEAM is one of those games. It is so close to being such a good game; I really wish it had gotten a sequel that could iron out some of the kinks. Since I last played this game, I have changed from a regular 3DS to a New 3DS, and it makes a difference here. The game plays much faster. I’ve already written about Codename STEAM before, and I haven’t really changed my mind about it. I love everything about the game but playing it. I do like playing it, but it is often as much frustration as fun. There is a reliance on foreknowledge in this game, like the game expects you to lose a time or two before you find the correct path through each map. That is annoying when maps can take more than an hour to complete. This game is just so close to being exactly what I want.

LBX – Another on my quest to conquer my 3DS backlog. This Level-5 kids rpg is fine. It has that goofy anime storyline, where everything revolves around the series specific focus, in this case small battling robots. In the first third or so of this game, toy robots are involved in kidnappings, international conspiracies and attempted assassinations, as well as just school ground play. I don’t know how into it I am. There are a lot of pieces and parts to fiddle with on your toy robot, but I haven’t quite figured out how much it matters and what works. Someone will get a lot out of it, I’m sure. I am also not crazy about the battles themselves. They are fine, but mostly play like a kind of sloppy action rpg. Maybe I will have more intelligent things to say once I finish with this game.

My World, My Way – This decade old DS game is another I have started back up. I like it, but I got pretty sick of it when I first played it a long time ago. Maybe I will like it enough to finish it off this time.

Dragon Quest XI – Okay, I started this early last year, but some good time into it and then just sort of drifted away from it as I got busy. Getting back into it, I am reminded that I really like this series. The cast, which I have mostly assembled at the point I am at, is pretty interesting. Maybe not the most memorable in the series, at least not as of yet, but still really good. Sylvando, Jade and Rab are great, but I wish there was a little more going on, or at least apparently going on, with Erik and the sisters. I like the upgrade system, but I wish there was a little more clarity to it. I want to know a little more of what is ahead as I build. That is not a big deal, as there is a way to reset, though I don’t know the cost. This is just a classic, well made role playing game and I am here for it.

Upcoming

Shovel Knight – I’ve not got 3 campaigns to finish in this game and a hankering to replay the original. Maybe I should buy the game again on a new console; I almost feel like I’ve been stealing from Yacht Club games getting more and more on my minimal kickstarter buy in.

Final Fantasy XV – If I can finish Dragon Quest XI, and I am not sure I can before the end of February, I will move on from 2018’s Christmas present to 2017’s Christmas present. I really want to play the game, but I have not managed to get past the first few hours in more than two years. Thanks, law school.

Something Else – This will be a different 3DS/DS game, after I finish My World, My Way. Maybe I’ll finally finish off one of the Shin Megami Tensei games I’ve still got sitting half finished. Maybe I’ll put some serious effort into that DS Valkyrie Profile game or the various Harvest Moons I’ve got.

The Rhythm Section

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

Judgment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judgment_20190610083916

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

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

What I Read January 2020

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

Mort

Terry Pratchett

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

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

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

Equal Rites

Terry Pratchett

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

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

From Russia, With Love

Ian Fleming

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

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

Mystery Mile

Margery Allingham

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

The Gentlemen

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

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

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

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

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

****

My World, My Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Women Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****