Dumbo

Disney’s animated classic Dumbo is a slim movie, with a runtime just over an hour and few wrinkles to its story.  It feels among the least likely of their animated catalog to merit the full live action remake treatment.  But other than Marvel and Star Wars movies, live action remakes of animated movies is what Disney does these days.  The live action Dumbo clocks in at nearly two hours long and gives almost no one what they wanted to see.  However, the movie is just charming enough to make it hard to hate.

The story of Dumbo is of a big eared baby elephant who learns to fly.  This adaptation adds plot elements from what seems like three other movies to pad it out to full feature length.  There is a story about Colin Farrell’s Holt Farrier, a circus equestrian and WW1 veteran freshly returned from the war.  He lost an arm in the war and his wife died while he was away.  He has to pick himself back up and keep things together for his two kids.  His son exists and that’s about it, but his daughter doesn’t want to follow in her parents footsteps as part of the circus but instead wants to be a scientist.  Holt’s struggles are exacerbated by the fact that while he was gone, the ringleader, Max Medici, sold his horses to keep the circus afloat.  Holt is the center around which the movie revolves, but there isn’t enough done with his struggles to make it the center plank of the movie.  Medici, played by the always delightful Danny Devito, takes up another chunk of the movie dealing with him struggling to keep the circus viable and eventually going into business with the transparently shady V.A. Vandervere.  Vandervere, of course, is only interested in the flying elephant.  The movie introduces a dozen or so characters and a half dozen plots, all because it is unwilling, for good reason, to focus on the spectacle of a flying elephant.

The problem is that Dumbo flying doesn’t look that amazing in live action.  It looked really interesting in traditional animation, but this CGI realistic facsimile inspires little awe.  Really, the movie is missing so much of what makes the original version so entertaining.  The most memorable part of the movie was the Pink Elephants on parade sequence, when Dumbo sneaks some of the circus laborers liquor and has drunken hallucinations of pink elephants on parade.  That scene does not happen in live action movie, but it is replaced with a “realistic” copy that has none of the weird charm, it is merely there to remind you the think you liked in the old movie without actually giving you that thing you liked.

Somehow, though , the movie manages to be charming despite feeling like a mismatched grab-bag of other movies.  A lot of that is thanks to uniformly strong performers being generally very charming.  Devito, Farrell, Eva Green and Michael Keaton are all doing something.  It is fairly enjoyable to watch them.  Each of the four movies that its feels have been Frankensteined together could have been good if fully fleshed out, Dumbo merely gives you glimpses of them. It is not a good movie, but it is somehow charming despite being bad.

**1/2

Advertisements

Now Playing March 2019

Beaten

Etrian Odyssey Nexus – post coming soon. Great farewell to the series and essentially to the 3DS.

Beyond Good and Evil –

I am not going to beat this game. Not this time through. There is a lot about this game that it still admirable. It is one of the better Zelda-likes of the PS2 era. But the game is just a touch clunkier to play than I remembered. Camera problems abound. The idea of Zelda with an active partner is a great one, but block pushing puzzles do not need the added hassle of waiting for the AI to come help push. I am about halfway through the game and I am simply done with it right now.

Ongoing

Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse –

I am giving this another shot and this time I am making some progress. I was going to compare it to my thoughts on the original Shin Megami Tensei 4, but apparently I never wrote about it. And honestly, other than remembering really liking it, I can’t recall too many details. Apocalypse falls into that void of memory even as I play it. That might not be fair to a game I started nearly two years ago, did all the foundational parts and then put down. I enjoy Apocalypse while I play it, but once I put it down for any length of time I forget what I was doing as soon as I pick it up. Still, this time I am intending to stick with it until I beat the game. Maybe it will have left some kind of real impression by then.

Dragon Quest XI – I didn’t play a lot of Dragon Quest XI last month, but I am still loving all the time I am able to put into it. This is a great game and if it keeps up this level of quality it deserved to be remembered with Dragon Quest V as one of the best in the series.

Upcoming

Disney’s Epic Mickey – If I ever get any time to play video games again, I still intend to finally get around to finishing this game. Maybe it’s not worth it, but I genuinely want to get to the last third or so of this game.

Yakuza 3 – Again, I still want to play this, but I just don’t have any time to actually play video games right now. Maybe I should abandon my plan to replay the whole series to build up to Yakuza 6 and just play Yakuza 6.

Monster Hunter Generations – My brother called me and suggested playing some Monster Hunter. So we are going to play this some. Honestly, there is a lot of this game I never experienced. I kind of only beat this one halfway, so going back to it gives me the chance to really dig into the back half of Monster Hunter Generations.

Chrono Trigger – I’ve been feeling the need to play Chrono Trigger, so I think I might give it another run through, at least to a point to get another ending on my DS game file. Maybe I’ll finally do the added dungeon in that game.

Captain Marvel Review

Captain Marvel hits a lot of familiar notes. Like Captain America: The First Avenger, it is a period piece origin story. Like Iron Man it is a movie that works largely due to the charisma of its star. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, it frequently leans on popular music. Captain Marvel tries to blend all of this together, but the movie ends up a lot like its heroine; searching for an identity. The movie is solidly good. It has the highly polished sheen that all Marvel movies seem to have. But it ends up being less the start of a bold new era, instead settling in as merely the bridge between Infinity War and Endgame.

There is a lot to like about Captain Marvel. Brie Larson stars as Carol Danvers, an Air Force pilot who somehow ended up in space, with amnesia working to the Kree as the superpowered Vers. After a mission goes awry and she ends up stranded on Earth, her attempts to complete her mission are derailed by her discovering her past. Larson makes the movie work, showing both Carol’s natural headstrong exuberance and the more subdued persona she is urged to take on with the Kree. She manages to be both vulnerable and a super strong badass. Likewise, Samuel L Jackson appears to be having an enormous amount of fun playing a digitally de-aged version of Nick Fury. The two of them make a great combo and it is fun to see Jackson’s usual intimidating persona become essentially the comic relief. The action is solid as well, both the more grounded stuff and the superpowered fights closer to the end. Nothing mind-blowing or really anything you haven’t seen in other movies, but it is executed well enough.

It also has some flaws. The ones that stand out are how it uses the 90’s period setting. All of the events in the movie happen in the mid-90s. The movie uses this for window dressing, with Radio Shacks and Blockbusters around, along with some 90’s fashion and music. Some have complained about the soundtrack not being exactly period appropriate, but it is not as if the music is diegetic, so that is a nonsense complaint. My problem is that the 90’s setting doesn’t seem to inform any part of the movie. It is just a ploy for nostalgia. That in itself is not that big of a problem, but it feels like a wasted opportunity. Also, the movie spends a lot of time trying to plaster over cracks, real, imagined or created by this movie, in the Marvel Cinematic backstory. Do you want to know how Fury lost an eye? Why they are called Avengers? Any of another half dozen pointless questions? This movie has answers. Not interesting answers, but answers nonetheless.

Captain Marvel does not reach the heights of Thor: Ragnarok or Black Panther. It never does manage to carve out its own identity, like even movies like Ant-Man or Spider-Man: Homecoming do. Its various ingredients do not blend into a solid of a whole as it could have. It just feels like a Marvel movie. I feel like I’ve been very negative in this review, when my thoughts on the movie are largely positive. I guess I do think Captain Marvel is a bit of a missed opportunity, but only because it is very good and not quite great.

****

What I Read February 2019

I managed an incredible feat in February, doing what used to be my routine. I read four books last month. One was a only anticipated release by my favorite author. Another was a book I had hoped to get for Christmas but didn’t so I bought it myself. I also read a couple of Douglas Adams books, because it was about time I did.

Skyward

Brandon Sanderson

I sometimes feel bad when writing about Brandon Sanderson’s books, because I feel like I come off as very negative. I do have some problems with his prose, which are highlighted by this book, which is a young adult book. I think Sanderson’s prose is already kind of simple, and when it is further simplified for a younger audience it gets a little flat. I had that problem with this book; it just read sort of plainly.

That said, Sanderson has significant strengths, which is why I keep reading his books. I really like Sanderson’s writing, I just don’t think it is perfect. He does great work with world building and establishing characters. That is true here. Skyward has humanity exiled to a far off planet, stuck living underground to escape bombardment from the aliens who control the skies. Spensa wants nothing more than to be a pilot, one of those who fight the aliens to try to build a better future for humanity. At first her family’s reputation appears to keep her from that goal, she is allowed to join as a trainee. While she trains, she also finds a strange spacecraft in the caves that she works to get into working condition. The book is mostly team building and training, with Spensa learning a lot of hard truths. It builds to Spensa finally making a decision with the strange ship she found.

Skyward is solid. It lays a lot of groundwork and tells an interesting, if clearly incomplete story. I liked it well enough, but I am hopeful future books in the series are better. This one doesn’t feel like it really comes into its premise until near the end. The story it told is fine, but it feels a little like it was hiding all the good parts. I look forward to more.

Early Riser

Jasper Fforde

If my math is correct, Early Riser is Jasper Fforde’s first book in nearly five years. That is kind of crushing for me, because I discovered him at about the same point he stopped producing new work.  Just as I caught up the well ran dry. But like with the people who complain about George RR Martin not producing A Song of Ice and Fire books fast enough, Jasper Fforde is not my bitch. I don’t get to dictate his writing schedule. I am just happy to have more from him to read. Early Riser did not disappoint.

Early Riser is set in a world where humans hibernate. The whole society is centered around this. There are a select group of people, the Winter Consuls, who stay awake all winter to make sure those who hibernate can do so in peace. The book follows Charlie Worthing, a newly accepted trainee Winter Consul, through much of his first winter awake. As tends to happen, he stumbles into important events that he doesn’t understand. His attempts to navigate through this dangerous events are what makes this book work. Charlie is not a particularly adept protagonist, he gets by mostly on gumption. He is smart enough to know his limitations and lucky enough to get through some tricky situation.

The book really doesn’t disappoint. It is a whole new world for Fforde to play around in. (I think it might actually be the same one from Shades of Grey, but it is different enough to actually be its own thing) He still plays wonderfully with skewed pop culture references, where he references something you know, but changes it just enough to make it clear it is something different. Fforde also never says no to adding a new weird idea into an already weird book. There is always something keeping the reader on their toes. The plot is a not especially intricate thriller, but that works with how intricate the setting is.  I have deliberately not written much about what actually happens in the book, both because explaining it is rather hard and because people should read it for themselves and I don’t want to spoil it. I loved this book; I am so happy Fforde is back.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Douglas Adams

This book is fun. It is a murder mystery where the murder itself is essentially a red herring. It plays with a lot of interesting science fiction concepts and weaves them together into the format of a detective novel, but the mystery was never really what you thought it was. I am given to understand that parts of this started as a Dr. Who script, and that makes sense. Adams’s wit is on full display here, making for a book that is a lot of fun to read, but it is much more tightly plotted than anything else I’ve read by him. That is not to say you could actually call it tightly plotted, it is only so in respect to Adams’s larger body of work. Still, it is quite an enjoyable read and I’ll finish up with its sequel sooner rather than later.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams

I’ve got a full post about how much I like this story. Read that, I don’t have anything to add here.

Summer Movie Preview

I don’t recall if I did this last year, but here is a list of “summer” movies I am interested in seeing this year. The summer gets earlier and earlier, partially because if I didn’t include April this year’s list would be pretty short. Is there anything I missed over the summer months that I should be excited for? Keep in mind that I will not watch horror movies. I flatly refuse. So here are nearly twenty movies I am at least interested in seeing, if not actually excited to see them.

  • Shazam – April 5 – I am super pumped for this one. As far as this year’s crop of superhero movies (which includes Hellboy because of course he is a superhero), this is the one I am most excited to see. It just looks like so much fun the trailers. Also, it looks like it is doing something at least slightly different than everything else. I am ready to be disappointed.
  • Hellboy – April 12 – I loved the last Hellboy movie, the second from Guillermo del Toro. It makes it hard for me to really look forward to this reboot. Still, the recent trailer looked fine and I like the character and the star, Stranger Things’ David Harbour.
  • Avengers: Endgame – April 26 – I am excited, but not as excited as I would expect to be. I don’t know. There is no chance I am not going to see it, there is little chance I am not going to really enjoy it. But I don’t know that I am really anticipating it.
  • The Long Shot – May 3 – This wasn’t on my radar until I saw the trailer before Captain Marvel. I am not sure of how good it will actually be, but the trailer seemed entertaining enough. I generally like Seth Rogen and I love Charlize Theron.
  • Detective Pikachu – May 10 – People see to be excited for this; I don’t get it. This looks horrible. Maybe not a bad movie, but it looks horrible. That said, I’ll almost certainly go see it.
  • The Hustle – May 10 – I love Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. This gender-flipped remake, with Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson looks pretty solid. If it is even half as good as the Michael Caine and Steve Martin version, I’ll be happy.
  • John Wick Chapter 3 – May 17 – It’s more John Wick. I would be there even if the trailer didn’t look awesome, which it does.
  • Aladdin – May 24 – I know the internet freaked out about blue Will Smith, but I am here for this. I mean, I haven’t really liked any of Disney’s other live action adaptations of their animated classics, but it’s directed by Guy Ritchie, who I pathetically still have faith in him (hey, The Man from UNCLE is great).
  • Godzilla: King of the Monsters – May 31 – Yup yup, yup. I am here for this. I want more Godzilla, I want Rodan, Ghidora and Mothra. Will this be too much? Maybe. But I am not going to miss it.
  • Dark Phoenix – June 7 – Let’s be honest, Fox has made exactly 3 good X-Men movies in 20 years. I don’t expect this to be the 4th. But thanks to the sunk cost fallacy, I feel like I’ve invested too much in this series to skip it.
  • Men in Black International – June 14 – I’m in for the cast. MiB3 was actually a lot of fun, maybe there is some life still in this concept.
  • Shaft – June 14 – I know little about this movie. I know the character Shaft and I know this is bringing together multiple generations of Shafts, but that is it. I really like Sam Jackson; I’ll give this a shot.
  • Toy Story 4 – June 21 – I don’t believe we need more Toy Story, Toy Story 3 was a pretty great wrap up for the series. But I like Pixar and I’ve liked all the Toy Story movies so far, so I’ll see it. It feels like Pixar is pushing their luck with this one.
  • Spider-Man: Far From Home – July 5 – More Marvel. More Spider-Man. I find it hard to be truly excited for either these days, but I rarely failed to enjoy either. (forget the Amazing Spider-Man movies: I try to.)
  • The Lion King – July 19 – I haven’t liked many Jon Favreau movies or any live action Disney adaptations. I don’t expect this to change that. But I’m going to keep an eye on this. I could easily be persuaded to give it a try.
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – July 26 – Quentin Tarantino. That is all I need to know to be excited for this. He pops up every three or four years with a masterpiece and I can’t wait to see this movie.
  • Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw – August 2 – Hot take: this movie is combing the best parts of the last few Fast and Furious movies. I am much more interested in a team up between The Rock and Jason Statham than the further adventures of Dom’s family. This looks like glorious nonsense.
  • New Mutants – August 2 – Is this actually coming? I don’t know. Will it be good? Seems unlikely. Is it based on some X-Men comics I actually like? Yes, yes it is. So if this actually comes out, I will be going to see it.

Fighting With My Family

I am not the world’s biggest wrestling fan. I’m not much of a fan of wrestling at all, to be honest. I am conversant in the subject, but other than a few months in 2001 or so, I’ve never really watched or cared about wrestling. I get the appeal, but it was never something that stuck with me. While Fighting With My Family is a wrestling movie, and at times takes the viewers knowledge of wrestling a little bit for granted, it is not a movie that requires the viewer to be a wrestling fan. This is a pretty well executed sports biopic, wherein the sport just happens to be wrestling. Where is truly succeeds is not in the fighting from the title, but the family.

Fighting With My Family tells the story of WWE Champion Paige, real name Saraya or just Raya, and how she came to win the title, focusing on her relationship with her family, especially on her relationship with her brother Zac. It opens with the two of them fighting, only for their parents not breaking up the fight, but instructing them on how to fight better. The two of them grow up participating in their parent’s regional wrestling association. They also train neighborhood kids who want to be wrestlers. When they get invited to WWE tryouts, it is Raya who goes on, while Zak is not chosen. So the newly christened Paige goes to Florida to train and join the WWE’s developmental league NXT, while Zak stays home and stews in his perceived failure. The two both struggle with how to move on from this.

The movie is directed by Steven Merchant, who you might know from his work on The Office or Extras or playing Caliban in Logan. You can feel his touch in the films comedic moments. The comedy is what really makes this worth watching. The world of wrestling is a slightly unreal place, even when you go behind the scenes and look at the real people behind it. There is a circus atmosphere to it. Playing it completely straight would be a disaster, but Merchant leans into the ridiculousness, without ever making the wrestling itself seem like the ridiculous part. It helps that the cast is rock solid, which is not an intention reference to The Rock, who has what is essentially an extended cameo in this movie. Florence Pugh plays Paige with equal parts strength and vulnerability. Jack Lowden (Dunkirk) plays Zak and his desperation to succeed is palpable. The parents are Nick Frost, who is delightfully chummy, and Lena Headey who seems to be having fun as well. The last big name is Vince Vaughn, who plays the man heading up NXT and gives his usual glib charm to the tough training coach.

The movie doesn’t shy away from the Knight family’s fairly low class status; they are outsiders even in their hometown. They struggle with money and the law. But it also shows them as a loving family and how they work to help each other and the neighbors. Zak’s training with the local youngsters keeps them out of trouble and their parent’s really seem to want what is best for their kids.

Fighting With My Family is a perfectly enjoyable movie; it isn’t really going to surprise anyone or make any top ten lists, but it is a decent little comic drama that is well worth seeing.

***1/2

What I Watched

Movies
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxysee this post.  I love this movie. Lots of favorites here; Sam Rockwell, Mos Def, Martin Freeman. *****

The Salvation – After watching Polar, Netflix recommended this other Mads Mikkelsen movie. It is a Western about a recent immigrant. After he settles in the west, he sends for his wife and son. When they arrive, they are quickly murdered. So Mikkelson’s Jon sets out for revenge, but then the brother of the murderer seeks his own revenge, setting off a destructive cycle. It’s nothing special, but it’s okay. ***

Ant-Man and The Wasp – I still enjoyed this a lot. Charming and fun, if inconsequential.****

Velvet Buzzsaw – I appreciate that this is a movie for somebody. That somebody is not me. This is a horror movie about the modern art world. It doesn’t appear to have much to say about art and it is not particularly scary (it is not scary enough that I watched it) but it is at least interesting. ***

Polar – This is some kind of weird mix of John Wick and Suicide Squad. I can’t fault anyone involved, least of all Mads Mikkelsen, but this movie is mostly not good. It is kind of entertaining in a wild and sort of awful way. Honestly, if it sounds at all interesting give it a try. I don’t think it’s good, but I had a decent time watching it. **1/2

High Flying Bird – Steven Soderbergh directed this movie about a fictional NBA lockout, with Andre Holland starring as an agent who manipulates things in an attempt to end the lockout. It is pretty great, with human characters and understandable viewpoints. It is a great sports movie that actually features very little of its sport. *****

Close – Noomi Rapace stars in a tight little action thriller. Rapace is a bodyguard, hired to protect a teenage girl. She saves the girl from an attempt on her life, but they can’t tell if it came from unknown enemies or from her own step-mother, with whom they have a fractious relationship. It is solid, if unspectacular. ***1/2

Alita: Battle Angelread review here. ***

Hot Fuzz – This movie is an absolute favorite, and that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon. I can watch this movie forever. *****

The Breaker Upperers – I might be being fooled by New Zealand accents, but this is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a long time. It is two women who run a business breaking up couples for a fee. For various reasons, they have to reexamine their business model. It is great. ****

Paddleton – This is an touching and occasionally amusing comedy/drama starring Ray Romano and Mark Duplass. The two play friends and neighbors. Duplass’s character gets diagnosed with cancer and Romano helps him navigate the end of his life. It is very much a downer, but it is well made and intermittently amusing. ***1/2

TV

The ABC Murders – There is a lot here to like in the adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Poirot mystery. They change somethings, in the backstory as much in the actual mystery, that seemed like a strange choice, but it is still really well made. John Malkovich is great as Poirot and I am starting to really like it when Rupert Grint shows up in things. It’s good, especially if you are not a Christie purist.

Russian Doll – Another show I want to really write about, but just don’t have the time. This is a Groundhog day type of story that goes in some interesting directions. It is just about a perfect show.

Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes – Its fine. There are better true crime series. The most interesting thing was hearing all the men talk about how irresistible Bundy was to woman and hearing all the women talk about how creepy he was if you spent more than ten minutes with him.

Black Earth Rising – I don’t know. There is a lot to like about this mini-series. The performances of John Goodman and Michaela Coel. I am generally interested in the subject matter of International criminal justice. This show just kind of goes too wide at times, a little melodramatic in ways that doesn’t seem to suit the show. Still, it does a lot well. It focuses a lot on the effects of colonialism and how even well intentioned attempts to counteract them only work to perpetuate the problems. But the show is also just kind of disappointingly all over the place, tonally.

You – I don’t think this show is for me. You follows the worlds biggest creep as he creeps on the object of his infatuation. The show does its best to keep the viewer at least partially on the side of protagonist/psychopath Joe, but I couldn’t forget the crazy enough to buy into anything else. I guess I am little too old for the social media aspect to resonate either. I’m on twitter, but I don’t share life details with people I’d avoid on the street. (to paraphrase Shawn Spencer of Psych)

Hilda – This was recommended to me several times, but it took me a while to get through it. That is mostly because it is pitched at a slightly younger audience than I am used to. However, the further you get into this show, the more its depth and heart show through. It is a fun mix of a modern world with a whole bunch of fantastic and mythological creatures. Hilda is amazingly empathetic towards whatever creature has shown up in any given week. The show’s dynamic doesn’t quite click until she makes friends with Frida and David. Adding those two characters gives Hilda consistent counterpoints to bounce off of, and really shows how she is special. The whole show is permeated with this sense of wonder that is utterly delightful. It is a great show.

One Day at a Time S3 – Another solid outing for this Netflix critical darling. This season digs deeper into its characters, while never losing that classic sitcom format. Previously, I’ve that format restrictive, but as with classic sitcoms, it gets better the longer the show goes on. Sure, eventually it will hit a tipping point where the quality of the writing, mostly due to having to find more stories to squeeze out of the set up, starts to go down, but by then the viewer is so comfortable with the characters and setting that it still feels like a warm blanket. One Day at a Time is hitting that warm blanket stage.

Big Mouth S1&2 – This falls into a similar category as Sex Education from earlier this year. It is a well made show, frequently really funny. It is a show providing good information to people who no longer need it. I don’t know how much it would actually appeal to kids the age of those on the show. I like all the people involved and frequently really like the show, but my reaction is more of a shrug and it’s fine.

The Umbrella Academy – Netflix is moving on from Marvel, but they are staying the superhero business. The first season of The Umbrella Academy is maybe better than any of Netflix’s Marvel shows. I kind of want to write a long blog post about his show, instead of a tiny review, but for now I’ll just say a few things. First, plotting is not this shows strong point. It does great stuff with setting and character, but the plot is chaos. That is partly the point; this dysfunctional family can’t even get things together to face the apocalypse, but sometimes you can lose track of each episode as it goes. Again, the character work is great. You really get where nearly every character is coming from, though I think it is impossible not to side with some over others. It is a delightful sort of weird. The most part most indicative of the overall tone is in the first episode, when all of the siblings dance separately to “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It is almost too on the nose in a perfect way. This is a really good show.

Lorena – A solid docu-series that recontextualizes the Lorena Bobbitt story from the 90’s. It does a really good job of showing how a salacious story like this gets distorted in popular culture. At the time everything was focused on John Bobbitt and his version of the story, and Lorena was largely dismissed as a crazy woman. This series takes a fresh look at the story, and goes further, looking at what has happened since, and creates a clearer look at the incident, which shows Lorena as more of a victim. It also shows how genuinely gross people like Howard Stern, Geraldo Rivera, and Alan Dershowitz were in dealing with this story.

Now Playing February 2019

Beaten

Celeste – Celeste is just about a perfect game. It is one part a meditation on depression, one part maso-core platformer. It does an amazing job of teaching its mechanics in each stage, slowly letting the player learn them in a safe environment before requiring performance in a treacherous setting. It is set up to kill the player a lot, but also to make the punishment for each death minimal. Instead of a death setting you back, it more affects your ‘score’ of deaths in each section. I’m sure someone who spent more time thinking about it than I did can think of a way the story interacts with the mechanics; instead I just found it to be a heartfelt take on dealing with depression. What a great game.

Ongoing

Etrian Odyssey Nexus – I think I am nearing the end of this. It is already the largest Etrian Odyssey game I’ve ever played; I am on something like the 30th dungeon floor. I pretty quickly settled into a solid team; I burn through resources like crazy and am super fragile, but they do some damage. While I apparently have a goldfish memory when it comes to these games, this does appear to be a very heartfelt greatest hits collection of all of the games in the series. I’m at the point where I kind of just want the game to end, but knowing this is the last entry in the series on the greater DS family of consoles, I also kind of never want the game to end.

Dragon Quest XI – slow progress, but some progress. I am still loving this game, I am just not loving the amount of time I have to play it.

Beyond Good and Evil – This is a fun club entry and a game I haven’t played in close to fifteen years. The first two hours reminded me why I liked it so much. This is a really fun world. The game feels like an evolutionary link between Ocarina of Time and Assassin’s Creed. I might have to do a longer write up when I finish this.

 

Upcoming

Shin Megami Tensei – Either Soul Hackers or 4: Apocalypse. I am in the mood for some Shin Megami Tensei, and I have these two unfinished 3DS games.

Final Fantasy XV – As soon as I finish Dragon Quest XI, I am going to put some serious time into this. Spring break is coming up and I am going to relax a lot.

Epic Mickey – Copy and paste from last month.

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King

For Christmas, I was given Dragon Quest XI for PS4. Playing it for a couple of hours reminded me of just how much I like Dragon Quest. It also reminded me that I didn’t finish Dragon Quest VII: Journey of the Cursed King when it was released for the 3DS a couple of years ago. So while I waited for Etrian Odyssey Nexus to be released, I dug out my copy to jam in my 3DS and finish off the playthrough I started back then.

Dragon Quest VIII makes an interesting counterpart to Dragon Quest XI because they are so similar. Even in a series known for sticking to a formula, these two games are nearly identical. They are both visually impressive, back to basics games. Both of them are games if not designed, at least positioned for success in the West for what is largely a Japanese series. With the caveat that I’m only about a third of the way through Dragon Quest 11, they are both two of my favorite games in the series.*

Dragon Quest’s reputation for staidness is a little overblown; it does occasionally tinker with the formula. VI and VII has some narrative innovation, with a job system that didn’t become available until too long into the game and some other strange pacing choices. Immediately following 8 was Dragon Quest 9’s Monster Hunter influenced take on the series, with its multiplayer stuff. Dragon Quest 8 was the only “normal” Dragon Quest game for about a decade on either side of it. Really though, the game is stripped almost bare of mechanics and characters, resting its accomplishments primarily on the purity of its vision.

That works for the game. There is a little bit of character customization, letting the player choose which of a handful of weapons each character can use. However, the party capped at 4 characters in the initial release. The 3DS added two newcomers, one who felt like she could have been on the team originally and one oddball. Still, they both join up very late in the proceedings and are mostly there for late and post-game shenanigans. The limited party with limited options lets the game be very specific with challenges. There aren’t a lot of ways to break the game, to do things out of sequence or blow up the difficulty curve. That is a mark against the game with many people, I know. I do enjoy games like Final Fantasy Tactics, which just lets the player go nuts and tear it apart, or Breath of the Wild, which encourages the player to do things their own way. However, I am not one to dock a game for carefully calibrating the experience. There are no shortcuts and few tricks to getting through Dragon Quest VIII, you play at the games pace.

It works because that pace is good. The game starts with a fairly simple quest: King Trode, Princess Medea, and their entire kingdom have been cursed by the evil jester Dhoulmagus. The protagonist is the one lowly guardsman who escaped the curse, and now leads the quest to break the curse. At the start they are joined by Yangus, a burly thief with a heart of gold. Soon they are joined by the fiery Jessica, whose life has also been overturned by Dhoulmagus, and cool playboy Angelo, who has been cast out of his religious order. It is not a story in which characters change a whole lot. The protagonist is silent cipher, with the player having some ability to shape his personality. Yangus has already went straight by the time the game starts, and is always Eight’s, as the protagonist is called, right hand man, with insider knowledge of most of the lowlifes they run into. Angelo is always more than he seems, and most of his secrets are full revealed by the time he joins. Jessica maybe gets the most growth of the party, as she learns her potential after being stifled most of her life. It is a fun group, with different perspectives and reactions to everything the party runs into. But it is also a limited group; you pretty well know how each of them are going to react to anything by the midway point.

The game tailors the challenges around that limited party. Early on it knows that the player has only Yangus’s power and Eight’s all around qualities; that is a time for simple strategies as the player learns the game. Then it adds Jessica the mage, and gives her opportunities to shine. Finally, you get Angelo the healer, so the game can really take the gloves off and come at the player. Your options are always limited, but there are enough things to consider when fighting bosses. It just all works wonderfully. The new additions to the 3DS version add some wrinkles near the end, but that is too late to really change things.

The story, building off the simple quest, is Dragon Quest’s traditional vignettes, with each area telling a complete story that is also a piece of the larger story. That is the best thing the series has going for it; very few games work like that and even fewer do it as well as Dragon Quest. One detail I love is that there is a low key mystery through the game about how the protagonist avoided the curse that is never dealt with before the post-game. No other game would leave that detail for post-credits revelations. Also, the game is gorgeous. The visuals are slightly downgraded on 3DS, but they still create a wonderful cartoon world.

So far, everything Dragon Quest VIII does well, Dragon Quest XI does too. It is structured the same way, but bigger. The world is bigger and better looking. The party is more diverse and there are more options for each character. It still feels the same, though. After a decade of detours, Dragon Quest XI is the game the finally follows up on the game that really got me into the series. With it Western success, Dragon Quest XI feels like the game that Dragon Quest VIII always wanted to be. And really, mostly was.

*For the record: V, IV, VIII, (XI pending completion), IX, I, III, VI, VII, II

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Comparative Study

On a whim, I rewatched The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie on Netflix a couple of weeks ago. Afterwards, a bout of curiosity led me to look up the movie on wikipedia, which took me down a rabbit hole that left me shocked to discover that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not a particularly well regarded movie. I was foolish enough to think it would be loved simply because it is great. Instead, it seems stuck in that that weird gray zone where fans of the previous versions don’t like it because it changed some things and non-fans don’t like it for a combination of thinking they are missing too much for not being familiar with the radio/book/tv version or were just never going to like it because Douglas Adams had a particular voice and that voice was understandably not for everybody. I really only understand the last one. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie is an excellent movie in its own right, even if isn’t the definitive version of the story.

Part of my disconnect is likely that I backed into The Hitchhiker’s Guide. I saw the movie first. I loved it. Being the reader that I am, the first thing I did after watching it was track down the book. Which I also loved. I haven’t returned to the book much, mostly because nearly all of the best bits are in the movie and it can be experienced in less than two hours. I didn’t get deep into Adams; I didn’t read the rest of the series or any of his other work. I just moved on to other things, and this movie became a pleasant memory from college.

In reading up on the movie’s reputation I found numerous complaints about how the movie missed the spirit of the earlier versions, which I find preposterous. That spirit, embodied by clever wordplay, sly jokes, understated darkness, and general absurdity, is in the movie in spades. The movie translates most of the first book word for word; the first book is just really short. I reread the book after rewatching the movie; I still think the movie got most of it. Not everything translated off the page perfectly, and some portions weren’t really attempted, but the heart of the book come across perfectly.

After reading the book, I watched the 1981 TV version on Amazon, hoping it would provide the Rosetta Stone for understanding why fans of the property were not especially big fans of the movie. It did, in a way. (Here’s the line that would get me hate mail if anyone read my blog.) The TV version reminded me forcefully that nostalgia is a hell of a drug. This version looks cheap and is so shapeless and meandering as to make the book look like it was plotted with clockwork precision. The book already had a tendency to just move on to the next thing when it was done with the joke. The TV show does the same, except the pacing of each scene is bloated and sagging. Structurally, the show is barely a show at all. It feels much like a sketch show, with each episode moving to a completely different setting and concept that just so happens to carry over some of the same cast. A lot of it feels like a radio play set to film. All the acting is done in the dialogue; there is little of interest actually happening on screen. This is not meant to be read as a screed against good dialogue, only to note that TV is a visual medium and maybe the show should have had something worth watching on screen. There are some good creature designs, but it is mostly a lot of people standing and talking. Two-headed Zaphod is a straight up disaster, with his second head being almost as well realized as the one on Michael Scott’s halloween costume. The show simply looks bad.

This. This looks really bad.

A lot of disdain for the movie came from people praising the TV show and I simply don’t get it. I can understand people not liking the changes and additions (more on those later) to the movie from the book, but the TV show praise is baffling to me. A lot of that praise is for the performances, although the reasons for that, other than simple nostalgia, elude me. Again, many of these feel like performances for radio. They recede on screen, leaving the settings to do a lot of the acting. It makes it hard for me to even compare the performances. Zaphod is fine, though he seems to be struggling under the costume to give the character any energy. David Dixon makes Ford the most dynamic character on the show, but even he has a tendency to get lost in the shuffle. Simon Jones as Arthur Dent suffers the most as the show goes on. He is great early, but as the other characters show up, he all but disappears, even when the rest of the cast actually disappears. Trillian is a mess. I guess I see how people who grew up with these versions could prefer them, but they are mostly just fine mouthpieces for good dialogue that bring little else to the table. Honestly, I am glad the TV series was not the first version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy I experienced, because I doubt I would have been a fan.

The movie, though, does have quite a few changes and additions from the book. Mostly, those are in the name of giving some form to the shapeless book. Part of the charm of the book—and the TV series I assume—is that scattered nature. It starts big, with the destruction of the Earth, but after that things just sort of happen. Revelations come fast and frequent, usually with little bearing on what came before it or what comes after. That was never going to fly in a movie version. So it added something of a quest to the search for Magrathea, which was something of a fait accompli in the book and show. Now, the crew has to get directions from Zaphod’s enemy Humma Kavula, which leads to a detour to Vogsphere. Those things were added for the movie. Honestly, they fit in almost seamlessly, though some of the humor is a little slapstick. Not significantly more so than stuff like a sperm whale crashing to the ground from outer space, but there is some. Outside of a knee-jerk dislike of everything new, there are two differences I’ve seen get a lot of hate. Understandably is the change in the nature of the relationship between Trillian and Arthur. Adding romance is the one change that really feels like a Hollywood change and not just an “accepted rules of storytelling” change. The romance is not needed to for cohesion or structure, it is just there. It doesn’t ruin the movie or anything, but if feels somewhat unnecessary. Inexplicably, people also hate the opening musical number. “So Long and Thanks for all the Fish” is a delight. Opening the movie with a satirical musical number ostensibly sung by dolphins tells the viewer exactly what they are in for. It is visually interesting, something the couldn’t be done in the book; it does, however, bring in something from the book in a visually interesting way.

I watched the movie again after rereading the book and watching the show. My esteem for the movie is undiminished. I love the cast; they are almost to a person better than the show performances. I guess I understand how people could prefer Dixon’s Ford to Mos Def’s chill version, but I liked Def’s take. It works with what is in the book. Otherwise, movie performances all the way. Especially Sam Rockwell’s Zaphod, who is an energetic mix of George W Bush and Elvis. Seeing people crap on the musical number to start the movie, then watching that musical number again cemented for me the idea the movie was never going to be successful. It had been too long and fans had too strong an idea of what had to be there for the movie to work. So movie gets dinged because some mildly funny dialogue got left on the cutting room floor or a stinger joke just before the credits suggest that the restaurant at the end of the universe is at a certain place and not a certain time. I mean, the movie left out all the jokes about digital watches. How can it purport to be The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without jokes about digital watches?

The movie is not a perfect translation of the book, which is what it most closely mirrors. But it it certainly a more effective film translation than the TV series. I might track down the radio version some day; I am not opposed to audio only entertainment (note: I should write someday about how I first experienced Star Wars through the radio versions). Maybe that version is the best version. For now, I’ll stick with book as the ideal form and the movie for when I just need to be entertained. On its own merits, the movie is excellent.