Aladdin Review

I’ve found Disney’s live action adaptations of their animated movies to run from mediocre to downright bad. Still, I somehow find myself going to see them. The advertising around Aladdin did not do it any favors, so I went in to see it not expecting much. That is despite my love of Guy Ritchie movies and me thinking that Aladdin is one of the absolute best of Disney’s animated movies. The 2019 version of Aladdin was a pleasant surprise, because it turns out it is actually pretty great.

There is no getting around this fact; the animated version is the superior movie. It is nimbler and more energetic. While there are improvements to this version, like having more than one woman with a speaking role, it loses a little of the light on its feet snappiness of the original. However, if you can accept that this is a somewhat lesser version of the movie, there is still a lot of fun to be had.

The part of the movie that is drawing the greatest criticism online is Will Smith as the genie. The two apparently objectionable parts of his portrayal are the look and simply an unfavorable comparison to Robin Williams. I kind of agree that the movie never quite gets the look of the genie right. I don’t know what they could have done better, I think the mind just rejects a real live blue person. There is nothing really wrong with it, it just doesn’t look great. The performance is something else entirely. I like it, when they let Will Smith be Will Smith. WHen he is copying Williams, it doesn’t really work, when he has more freedom to do his own thing, Smith’s charm shines through. Fortunately, the movie has a lot more of the latter.

While they do slow things down a little bit, most of the rest of the changes are for the good, narratively. The Sultan’s character has been given a near complete overhaul. He was essentially a child in the animated movie, both small of stature and small of mind. Here, he has been reimagined as a scared old man. It adds a layer to his dealings with Princess Jasmine. He is trying to marry her because he is afraid of leaving her alone. His fear allows him to be led by Jafar, at least in some things. Jasmine is made a stronger character, with more to her than just that desire to see life outside of the palace. She has studied and made herself capable of being a strong ruler should the opportunity present itself. Jafar has been changed pretty significantly, and for the better in my book. They made him, like Aladdin, a former “street rat.” He is a man that was born with nothing and has risen to be the second most powerful man in Agrabah. It creates a strong parallel between him and Aladdin that deepens Aladdin’s struggles with the power the genie gives him and the conflict between the two of them.

This is a still a musical, and while the musical numbers do not quite match the original, they are solid, with one exception. “Friend Like Me” is a dud in this version. It is still a fun song, but this version has none of the magic of the original. Still, “One Jump Ahead,” “Prince Ali,” and “A Whole New World” are still really good. The new song’s heart is in the right place, but it sticks out like a sore thumb. Especially the second time it shows up.

While Aladdin may lack the energy of the original, it is one of the few of these adaptations that feels like it has any at all. Many of the rest fell somewhat perfunctory; this one at least feels like it is trying. Like the animated version, it is a crowd pleasing delight.

****1/2

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Tolkien Review

Tolkien is a perfectly fine biopic that tries to do too much and ends up not doing most of it as well as it could have. The movie tells the story of a young JRR Tolkien, up through his experiences in WWI, largely following three threads. The first is the bond Tolkien formed with some of his school friends that last until the first world war. Another is a love story between Tolkien and his lifelong love. Last, the movie spends time with Tolkien’s experience during WWI.

The movie cuts back and forth between a young Tolkien and Tolkien during the war. The bulk of the movie follows Tolkien as he ages from child through his time at university. First, Tolkien and his mother and brother find out that his father has died and they are forced to move from the country to the city. Then, further tragedy strikes as Tolkien’s mother dies. He and his brother go to live as boarders with a rich old woman while they attend school. Another boarder living there is Edith Bratt, who soon forms a connection with Tolkien. After an initially rough time fitting in, Tolkien also forms close bonds with a trio of other boys at school, forming what they call a fellowship that lasts even when they go to seperate universities.

Interspersed with Tolkien growing up are scenes of Tolkien in the trenches of WW1. He is suffering from an illness, and looking for his friend Geoffrey Smith. Smith has stopped responding to letters, and Tolkien is afraid he might have been killed. So he treks across the front looking for him, followed by his batman, a Private named Sam. Tolkien frequently nearly collapsed, and has fantastical hallucinations.

While good, the movie bit off a little more than it could chew. There is likely a really entertaining version of this movie that focuses on the romance, or on Tolkien’s love of languages, or on his connections with his school friends. This one tries to do all of those things, and ends up shortchanging most of them. The only one that comes across truly strongly is him with his childhood friends. They call themselves the TCBS, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. Still, even with that thread it struggles to give clarity to the relationships between the boys. While it does manage to differentiate the boys, the focus on them shifts making it hard to get a read on them at times.

The romance feels truncated, but it works. It helps that Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins are both great. It does a good job of showing why they would connect, but it does a lesser job of bridging things after the inevitable struggles happen. The WWI stuff is the clumsiest part of the movie, mostly because tries the hardest to connect his experiences to the Lord of the Rings.

The Middle Earth books are the specter that hovers over this movie, even if it doesn’t cover the part of Tolkien’s life when he wrote those stories, other than in a coda near the end. It tries too hard to relate all of Tolkien’s experiences to what he would later write in his stories. Some of it works, it only makes sense that writer’s experiences would influence his works, but it frequently tries too hard. His visions and hallucinations during the war are the most egregious example.

Tolkien is more good than bad. It isn’t anything world changing or amazing. It is simply a solidly executed, well shot and well acted, biopic.

***1/2

Pokemon: Detective Pikachu

I am a fan of Pokemon. I’ve played the games since Red and Blue were first released and while I don’t obsess over them, I can point to evidence that I have played nearly every mainline release in the series. While knowledge of or nostalgia for Pokemon is certain to greatly enhance a person’s enjoyment of Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, I think is works without much affection for its base series.

Knowledge of the details of the Pokemon world and knowledge of the close to one thousand little creatures that inhabit it are a definite plus for watching this movie. It does some work in explaining how things work, but there are significant chunks of background stuff that are helpful to a viewer. Like the opening scene with the Cubone. Tim, the protagonist, makes a comment about its bone helmet while trying to catch it. The movie never really explains what Pokemon fans already know, that a Cubone wears the skull of its dead mother as a helmet. That is the kind of information a player would find in their pokedex or the cartoon would explain. This movie doesn’t have time to explain all of the series’ accompanying nonsense; it just assumes the player is familiar. For the most part this works; most pokemon are pretty self-explanatory. The big dragon with fire on its tail breaths fire, the toads with big flower bulbs on their backs have plant abilities. When the movie needs the player to know a stranger fact, like the fact that psyduck’s have trouble controlling their psychic powers under stress, it tells the viewer. Most of the incidental stuff is just there to be spotted by fans, and the movie does a great job of filling the frame with incidental stuff.

The cast is a nice mix of relative newcomers and some favorites. I loved seeing Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe as secondary characters. Justice Smith is a rising star, who has been enjoyable in largely enjoyable misfires like The Get Down and Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom. The star is Ryan Reynolds, who lends his voice to Pikachu, doing a PG version of his Deadpool schtick. It mostly works.

One part of the movie that unreservedly shines is its effects. I was not crazy about the realistic Pokemon renders in the trailers, but pretty quickly in the movie I not only got used to them, I became pretty impressed with how good they looked. It isn’t easy to turn fanciful, cartoonish monsters into realistic creatures, but they did it. Pikachu in particular is a success, with him appearing wonderfully real, furry and expressive.

Detective Pikachu plays out like a Blade Runner for babies; it is a child’s first noir story. And while it can’t quite bring the mystery home in a truly satisfactory way, it mostly works. Tim is a lapsed Pokemon fanatic who is called to Ryme City to settle affairs after the apparent death of his estranged father. His father was an ace detective who disappeared on a case. At first, Tim has no interest in picking up where his father left off, he just wants to deal with his dad’s stuff and get back to his insurance job. That changes when he finds his dad’s Pikachu, who for some reason can talk. This Pikachu considers himself a great detective, but he has amnesia so he doesn’t remember what happened to Tim’s dad. The two of them team up to solve Tim’s dad’s last case.

The way the mystery plays out is where it is most apparent that this is a movie for kids. I pretty much sorted out all of the characters immediately and what their roles would be. There are a couple of bonkers twists near the end that I couldn’t predict, but the general roles of every character was pretty much immediately apparent to any savvy viewer. It is a simple mystery, but a largely satisfying one up until the near the end.

That is the movie in a nutshell; deceptively simple and largely satisfying. All of the Pokemon nonsense might be hard to grasp for the uninitiated, but the parts needed to understand the film are simple.

****

John Wick Chapter 3 Parabellum

I thought I understood where this third John Wick movie was going. I thought the second movie was this series Empire Strikes Back or Back to the Future 2; a movie where the end leaves the characters kind of stranded, kind of defeated, a low point setting up a triumphant third part of the story. John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum is not that triumphant third piece of a trilogy. It is a bigger, messier movie in the series that sends the titular protagonist on a journey through hell, but it is a highly entertaining trek.

Parabellum picks up right where Chapter 2 left off, with John Wick an hour away from being declared excommunicado, running with no safe place to run to. Wick starts this movie desperate, and it never really gets better. First, he has to escape New York. Then he has to find a way to get the contract on him lifted, to get back in the good graces of the High Table, the group that leads the assassin world. To do this, he has to call in all the favors left to him. He has one from The Director, who runs a ballet/wrestling school and has some kind of past with John Wick. She gets him passage to Casablanca, where he meets up with Sofia, cashing in another favor to try to find The Elder, to get him to intervene on his behalf with the High Table.

While Wick fights every assassin in the world, the High Table sends an adjudicator to hand out punishment to everyone who helped Wick along the way, from Winston at the Continental Hotel to the Bowery King to people he encounters in this movie. There are fewer and fewer safe places for John Wick to go.

John Wick does not have the resources available to him in this movie that he had in the past, making the fights rougher and meaner. Lots of knives, lots of hand to hand combat. This is not the carefully planned assassination from the last movie, with John Wick getting outfitted for every contingency. This is a scramble to survive, all the way up to the final action scene.

The movie introduces more allies and/or enemies with history with Wick. The most interesting is Sofia, played by Halle Berry. Sofia is essentially a female John Wick; one who realized she would never get out of the life and did what she could for her family. She shows her similarity to Wick in one of the movies highlight action scenes, right down to her affection for canines. Then there is Zero, an assassin hired by the High Table to help them get revenge on Wick. He too is another master murderer, this one something of a John Wick fan trying to prove himself to the legend by killing the legend. I kind of want to say more about certain developments in this movie, but I really don’t want to spoil it.

John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum is amazing in all the ways that its predecessors were amazing. This one tries to go bigger, and I would be lying if I said that path did not lead to some diminishing returns. I don’t fault the movie for it, the previous two basically perfected this sort of balletic violence. What is there left for this chapter but for more and bigger? It mostly works here, while occasionally feeling like too much; like the movie went too big. There are still plenty of memorable fights and letting characters that are not Wick get in more on the action was a good idea. It is everything you could want in an action movie.

I misread where John Wick was on his hero’s journey. I though the last movie ended with him further along, with John Wick at the abyss, ready to start his ascension out of the underworld. With the third chapter, I realized that he has much further to go. After Parabellum, I am eager for more adventures for John Wick and eager to see him find peace.

*****

The Hustle

I love Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels. That con man caper just hits all the right notes for me, and the combination of Steve Martin and Michael Caine is just perfect. And that is saying nothing of Glenne Headly. I consider it a perfect comedy. Naturally, I was excited to see the remake, which changed the title to The Hustle and stars Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. That remake turned out to be somewhat disappointing. I wouldn’t call a complete loss, but it is a missed opportunity.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a movie that it is hard to get upset about seeing remake, if only for the fact that it was a remake itself. The common story to these three movies is one that lends itself well to changes to the details while keeping the core conceit in place. That conceit is that one character is an uncouth, small time con man, who meets up a refined, polished trickster. The two briefly form a partnership, but it soon becomes apparent that the town, Beaumont-sur-Mer, is not big enough for the both of them. So they concoct a competition to see who will have to stay and who will have to go. The details of the cons, and who is tricking who at any given time, could be changed without changing much of the appeal.

The Hustle, doesn’t change enough from its predecessor. Or maybe it changes too much? It gets into a weird place where things are different, but seemingly only because makers knew some things had to be different. Sometimes the changes make no sense. At one point in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Martin pretends to not be able to walk. Caine poses as a psychologist who can cure Martin’s psychosomatic condition. He takes Martin, and their mark, to a dance club, his fake theory being that seeing them moving around and having fun will snap him out of it. The same scenario plays out in The Hustle, except Rebel Wilson, playing the Steve Martin role, is pretending to be blind. How not seeing people dance will make her see again is unclear. It isn’t something she is forced to miss out on; blind people can dance and she can’t see people dancing without her. Many of the changes are like that, a seemingly small alteration that makes how the con plays out nonsensical.

The movie is at its best when it pushes things further away, like when Wilson is setting up fake tinder dates and scamming men out of money for fake boob jobs. Those bits work. As do a lot of the scenes that change nothing from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It is when the movie gets in that halfway state that it falls apart, when it keeps the set up but changes the punch line, or vice versa.

The other part where it didn’t change enough is in taking into consideration its new stars. Anne Hathaway does a decent Michael Caine impersonation, all haughty and controlled. She brings a very similar energy here, and it works. Rebel Wilson is no Steve Martin. That is not intended to be a dig at Wilson; she just brings a different comic energy that Martin does. They give the role completely different flavors of sleaze. It means that jokes that worked for Martin do not work as well for Wilson.

The bones of a good movie are apparent in The Hustle. The musculature built around those bones is lumpy and misshapen. While I will watch anything with Anne Hathaway in it, I’d rather just watch Dirty Rotten Scoundrels again.

**1/2

Long Shot

Long Shot is a solid romantic comedy with a political bent. It does not do anything that has not been seen before in the genre, but it is a well acted and well written, making it more than worth a watch. The movie stars Charlize Theron as a Secretary of State gearing up for a presidential run while trying to win support for a big environmental treaty. Seth Rogen is a recently unemployed journalist who is hired to punch up some of Theron’s speeches. During the trip, they kindle a romance.

As with most romcoms, Long Shot’s appeal comes down to its two leads and the chemistry between them. Here, Long Shot soars. Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen work surprisingly well together. Yes, it is that old schlubby guy with a beautiful woman dynamic, but it works here. It works because Rogen as Fred is genuinely charming. He is opinionated and a goof, but he also clearly shows what he cares about. Theron is similar as Charlotte, a genuine and likeable politician. You can see why she’s popular and why Fred has been in love with her for so long. They work together thanks largely to Fred’s mostly unselfish infatuation with Charlotte. He clearly has a crush on her from the start. He is also smart and funny enough to show to win her over. It really helps that Charlize Theron is always amazing. She seems perfect in nearly every role, and this is no different. This is her movie. Fred gets sucked into her orbit, but it is all about Charlotte’s journey and Theron sells that journey.

It also has some pretty great supporting players, from June Diane Raphael as Charlotte’s chief of staff to O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Fred’s best friend, to Bob Odenkirk as an actor turned incompetent president because the American electorate is a bunch of brain dead knobs who will fall for any stupid mother fucker no matter how obvious corrupt and shitty he is. It is a fun cast to spend time with.

The big conflict between them also works. Fred refuses to compromise, about almost anything. Charlotte perhaps compromises too much. They are both somewhat right, and the movie does a good job of showing how they each learn from the other. Fred becomes a little less strident, which had isolated and hurt is ability to actually accomplish anything. Meanwhile, Charlotte realizes, or at least finally finds the point, where compromise has given everything away and it is no longer worth it. Added to this is the optics of what dating Fred would do for Charlotte’s optics. Charlotte’s struggles also get into to the compromises that women in positions of power have to make that men don’t even consider. The movie could beat you over the head with that point, and while it isn’t subtle it mostly just lets it come out organically in the story.

The movie mostly gets along on the charm of its cast and some fun, snappy dialogue. It leaves the believability that is often a hallmark of the romcom. These are not normal people, they are extraordinary people. How well their struggles translate to relatable is up for debate. The movie largely works anyway just on charm. It is an easy, pleasant time in the theater. Long Shot is slight, but delightful.

****

Shin Megami Tensei 4 Apocalypse

Before writing about Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse, I tried to go refresh myself on what I wrote about Shin Megami Tensei 4. Turns out, I didn’t write anything. Or if I did, I somehow failed to post it. (I really should check my old laptop to see if I have any unposted stuff still on there). What I remember of that game, which I played more than five years ago, was that it was very ambitious and engrossing but had some balance issues and a chore of an ending. My thoughts are more vague than specific. Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse is something of sequel/expansion to that game, and while it fits inelegantly with the previous game storywise, it irons out some of the gameplay flaws.

As far as the battle system goes, Apocalypse continues to refine and perfect the press turn system that was first used in Nocturne and refined through the Digital Devil Saga games through SMT4, with similar systems also found in plenty of the spin-offs. It is a good system. Hitting a enemies weak point gives the player’s party another turn. Unfortunately, the enemies can do the same. So it is a game all about finding and exploiting weaknesses. It also has the Smirk mechanic from 4, where occasionally critical hits or hitting weaknesses powers up the next hit, guaranteeing a critical hit or giving certain attacks new properties. It makes for a battle system that is prone to big swings in momentum, where good play can almost make it impossible for enemies to git hits in, but a bad matchup for the hero might result in a quick, helpless game over. However, the game allows the player to retry after a loss and is generally pretty friendly in ways that this series almost never is. It is hard to describe just how good this game feels.

One mechanic that never works as well as this series wants it to is demon conversations. To recruit new demons, you have to talk to them in during battles. In order to keep the conversations from being repetitive, the game somewhat randomizes the monsters’ responses. There is no good way for this system to work. If all the same kinds of monsters respond the same way each time, the system is pointless and easily exploitable. If they don’t respond the same way, the whole thing is arbitrary. I know that demon conversations are a favorite of some players; I think they are a great idea that hasn’t worked yet. Luckily, Apocalypse smooths things out by giving the player experience from the conversations, meaning that the attempt no longer wastes opportunity to level up. I don’t recall if this was how it was in SMT4, but I know it wasn’t in Strange Journey.

Also, demon fusion is still great. It might even be too easy and intuitive now, but that isn’t a real complaint. It is always fun.

Where the game kind of falters is in the story. Apocalypse is very ‘anime,’ in a way that is incongruous with SMT4, which as already pretty anime. While the battle party consists of demons, the adventuring party is filled with teens and pre-teens. Including a pre-teen girl that spends half the game calling the protagonist master. It is uncomfortable. It isn’t that they are bad characters necessarily, but at no point did I find them really engaging. I wanted to see more of the world, but I didn’t care at all about the characters or their struggles.

There is also a simplifying of themes. People with a better grasp of Japanese politics that I noted some uncomfortable undertones to the previous game. This game replaces the philosophical tragedy of the previous games with childish nonsense. It comes down to the power of friendship. SMT4 was already a step back for the series along those lines, this game feels like a leap further down the road. It wouldn’t be that big a deal, except for this game’s plot is shoved into the back third of the original SMT4. So the new characters and stuff need to mix with the previous stuff and they really don’t.

The more Shin Megami Tensei games I play, the less special they feel. This is the first time that one of them felt so pedestrian. I liked the game. I played it for nearly fifty hours, I enjoyed the vast majority of my time with the game. But it really didn’t feel special. Maybe that is because it is so similar to SMT4. I don’t know. Shin Megami Tensei 4 Apocalypse is a very well made jrpg, but while I appreciate it on a mechanical level, it didn’t really engage me.

What I Watched April 2019

Movies

Observe and Report – God, this is dark. Just pitch black. Seth Rogen is a mall cop with delusions of being a cop. He just keeps pushing things further and further, supposedly towards his goal, but his understanding of everything is fucked up. Just watching how deep he goes just amanges to be more funny that disturbing. ****

The Legend of Cocaine Island – This is a wild ride. In the midst of the recession, a man learns of an urban legend of cocaine buried on an island near Florida. He hatches a plan to go get it. This documentary tells how it all went wrong. It is really enjoyable. ***1/2

Hellboy – read review here. *1/2

Shazam – read review here. *****

Austin Powers in Goldmember – I’ve written about the Austin Powers movies before. I watched this as background noise while studying for finals. ****

Avengers: Infinity War – I liked this better on a rewatch. It is still a two and half hour climax that somehow ends with an anti-climax. It’s pretty good. ****

Thor: Ragnarok – I liked this a lot when it came out, but I think I like it even more now. Like, it might be my favorite Marvel movie. Everytime I watch it, it gets better. *****

Avengers: Endgame – read review here. ***1/2

Snatch – It feels like a long time since I’ve watched this. I have long been a fan of Guy Ritchie, and this is maybe his best. It intercuts between a handful of groups at various levels of criminality in the London underworld. Some are just trying to get by, some are running the game. Their stories collide and intersect in humorous and deadly ways. It is a lot of fun. *****

TV

I Think You Should Leave, with Tim Robinson – I went into this with no expectations, and it might be my favorite TV show I’ve seen all year. It is six short episodes of sketch comedy from Tim Robinson. Most of the sketches start with someone telling a lie and continue as that lie snowballs. It is such a simple conceit, but they take it in so many interesting ways. I am going to spend the next few months gushing about this show to anyone who will listen; telling them about how Scrooge saves Christmas or how skeletons use bones and/or worms for money. There are a few dud sketches, but there are so many great ones it is hard to care.

Santa Clarita Diet – I am really sad this turned out to be the last season of this Netflix show. It has been one of the service bright spots since it started. A zombie sitcom should have been a tired idea, but Santa Clarita Diet made it work. A big part of its success was the perfect comic timing, both in the writing and between its leads. Timothy Olyphant, Drew Barrymore, Liv Hewson, and Skyler Gisondo are all great. Olyphant and Barrymore especially, who are astoundingly believable as a married couple. The fact that it managed to combine the comedy with really solid heart, with making the viewer care about its characters more and more as the show went on is the biggest reason why it was so disappointing to see it cancelled. Another good Netflix show bites the dust.

Doom Patrol – Since this ends next month, I’ll write something more about it then, but this show is really good. I thought DC Universe’s Titans was better than expected, this is one of the best superhero TV shows ever made. It captures something that works for me perfectly in the self-loathing of most of its characters. That is something I’ve always related to, and it is used to great effect here.

Shrill – This stars SNL’s Aidy Bryant as a writer who struggles with having internalized the world dismissal of herself because of her weight. It manages to be pretty funny while only rarely really living up to its title. It is a solid comedy.

The Staircase – A solid documentary series about a man accused of murdering his wife. It originally follows him and his defense team as he goes through trial. There are a pair of coda series that deal with the aftermath. It might be a little too long. The best part is seeing it go into detail of how they plan his defense and seeing how it plays out in court. That is especially interesting to me, since I am currently in law school. This is really good.

The Orville – This show morphed from a comedy version of Star Trek: The Next Generation into just Star Trek: The Next Generation. The crew of the Orville is not quite as competent as that of the Enterprise, but the result is largely the same. This season expanded things from the last season, and was well worth watching for any fan of Star Trek. It isn’t a perfect show, but it is a good one.

Traitors – This was a big disappointment. It is about an English woman getting wrapped up in spying for the Americans on British citizens, looking for Soviet sympathizers. It just never really gets past the starting point. I wanted more. I love Michael Stuhlbarg, and thought the star Emma Appleton was really good, but the show just seemed kind of muted.

Bosch S5 – There is something comforting about this show. It isn’t great; it is just a solidly very good cop drama. The solving of a handful of cases, one major case and a few peripheral ones, play out over the course of ten episodes. It rarely goes too big, and balances its characters various interests. It is just very good TV. This season was no exception.

What I Read April 2019

Only two books in April, which means I am back on my law school pace. I don’t expect things to get better from here. Maybe three books a month seems like the best I can hope for these days.

First Among Sequels

Jasper Fforde

I still really like Thursday Next. This is the first book of the sequel series, with Thursday now the mother of three children. After the last book, Something Rotten, brought many of the plotlines to a close, this one reshuffles things and deals out a new string of plotlines.

My favorite of the new plotlines is Thursday’s adventures in BookWorld with her two new apprentices. Those apprentices are fictional and they just so happen to be the two fictional versions of Thursday. The first is Thursday 1-4, books that occurred before Thursday had a say over how her adventures were written and, supposedly, the four books that represent the series so far. She is essentially an 80’s bad cop action movie star. The other is Thursday 5, the star of the fifth book in the series. But not this book, the lost fifth book, The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco. This version of Thursday is vegan hippy push-over. That reception of her book caused the end of the series. In real Thursday’s mind, neither are cut out for the job, though for opposite reasons. All three grow and learn over the course of the adventure. That is just one thread of many that are going on over the course of the book. This is such a great series.

Downtiming the Night Side

Jack L Chalker

I feel like I should either have a lot to say about this book, or very little to say.  Jack Chalker is a science fiction writer whose work gets WEIRD.  This book is not exception. It is a time travel story.  Terrorists take over a time travel facility and travel back in time.  The protagonist is sent after them.  This books take on time travel works something like Quantum Leap, but if you stay in the past too long you get stuck in the past body.  The initial mission goes sideways, but the protagonist, Ron Moosic, is saved by a mysterious time traveler.  He is then wrapped up in a time war from the future.  Things continue to go badly for him, as his mind is being affected by all the other people he’s been.

The is some weird post-human stuff that goes on, with the future people having evolved to live in space with various differing adaptations.  Except they never actually appear in the book, people just tell other people about them.  Then there are people on the night side, which are people who can’t return to their time because history has changed and they no longer exist.  At the risk of spoiling everything [so stop now if you don’t want to know], Ron meets and falls in love with Dawn.  They have kids together.  But Ron grows old, so he and his friends plan to strand him in a new body long enough for it to become permanent, without him losing his mind to the new body.  They do so, and his new body turns out to be Dawn.  His friends pull him back to before Ron and Dawn met, and now Ron is on the other side of the relationship.  What I am saying is that this book is freaking weird.

Avengers Endgame

This is a hard movie to review.  I get why people love it, but it was such an uneven experience for me that I ended up walking out of the theater somehow completely satisfied and a little disappointed.  For more than two hours of Avengers Endgame’s runtime it is easily the best Avengers movie.  It is focused and narratively coherent, while also having a real solid theme and doing great character stuff.  It is everything I could want from superhero movie.  Then the finale hits, and none of the payoff lands.

Endgame is a movie about loss and grief and how people handle it.  The surviving Avengers all deal with it in a different way.  Natasha throws herself into her work, Tony retreats to his family, Steve pushes himself to help others through it, etc.  Thor, who lost more than anyone between Infinity War and Ragnarok, kind of gives up completely.  The movie lets each character process things in their own way and spends time digging into how and why they have reacted the way they did.  It is some of the best character stuff in any of the Marvel movies, let alone the always overstuffed Avengers movies.

I also loved the middle section of this movie.  The time heist was great.  They chose some really interesting scenes to revisit.  Sure, going back to The Avengers was a no brainer; I may personally believe it has aged poorly, but that was when the MCU went from a handful of decent to good movies to a full on phenomenon.  Likewise, jumping back to the start of the original Guardians of the Galaxy makes sense because that is when the movies first really left Earth.  The third drop in for the time heist is the most interesting choice, with Thor and Rocket stopping in during Thor: The Dark World.  While not all the movies have been equal in terms of how important they are to the overarching story of the MCU, the two that have been the most comprehensively ignored since their releases are The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World.  Endgame manages to pull more pathos out of that movie than was in it to begin with.  The time heist overall manages to be both a lot of fun, and really dig down into the core of most of it characters.  Especially the original Avengers, excluding the Hulk.  Tony gets to hash things out with his dad, Cap gets another look at the life he lost, and Thor gets a few precious moments with a world he has lost.  Then there is the big scene between Nat and Clint, which works for both characters, even if I think it doesn’t get quite get to where it wants to.

All is going well until the big climactic moment.  It is a big moment that brings in nearly every superhero to appear in one of these movies.  However, unlike the sprawling battle from Infinity War, this battle didn’t work at all for me.  The geography of the battle makes no sense, its objectives make no sense, there is no flow or feel.  It is just twenty or so minutes of largely pointless violence.  Getting to see some cool hero shots doesn’t really fix anything.  It takes a movie that had fun and entertaining and just lands with a big, deflating thud.

At least the wrap up after the fight scene was suitably emotional and well done.  This movie is definitely an end, and it clears the deck for movies to come.  Movies that, for the first time in like a half decade, we don’t know are coming.  Outside of a few obvious ones, at least.

Someone else, I’m sorry I don’t remember who for attribution, noted that these last two Avengers movies work as a strange pair of inverted expectations.  Infinity War was largely a downbeat, mournful adventure. Endgame, on the other hand, is sparkling light-footed meditation on loss.  The start of this movie is a fitting coda to its predecessor, the middle section is as much fun as any Avengers movie has been, but that ending lets it all down.  I know that is not a popular position to take, but while I applaud the ambition and scope of that last fight, it also worked to disconnect me from a movie that I had been largely in sync with until that point.  The point where when the final climax hits, I felt nothing at what was objectively a very cool line.  This is also a movie that, the longer I think about it, the less I like it.  There are a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of strange choices.  Still, it is a fitting and entertaining end to more than a decade of good movies.

****