Ralph Breaks the Internet

With apologies to Tangled, Wreck-It-Ralph was Disney’s first great 3D animated movie. It was a creative and loving look at the early days of arcade games. The easy, and fairly apt, comparison was that it was Toy Story for video games. As much as I enjoyed it, I can’t say I was especially eager for a follow up. Luckily, Rich Moore and Phil Johnston found a worthy new story with the characters that wasn’t just repeating the first movie. This time, protagonists Vanellope and Ralph go to the internet when the arcade owner hooks up a router to the same power strip where all the arcade games are plugged in.

When the first movie released, the same year as Brave, I thought it seemed like Disney released the Pixar movie and Pixar did the Disney one. That Pixar feeling is here this time as well. I don’t mean that as a catch all for a good movie, which Pixar’s output almost invariably is, but this is a kids movie that is as much for the kids parents as for the kids themselves. It doesn’t just throw out some jokes that go over the kids’ heads but their parents will laugh at, it builds some adult themes into the movie.

The movie is about friends growing apart, at least a little. It is about growing up and maybe not having the exact same interests at your friends anymore and how to be a good friend in that case. But it is also about parents learning to let their kids grow up, that they eventually become their own people and move out the house. Both stories are remarkably effective.

However, it is still a kids movie and the plot is largely an excuse for the two protagonists to romp around a virtual internet and comment on internet culture. Luckily, Moore and Johnston show the same affection for weirdo internet stuff that they did for old arcade games. Sure, it feels just like a Futurama episode from … 18 years ago (I’m so old!), but it is still a fun romp for most of its run time. They physically visit web sites, deal with pop up ad street vendors, fail to understand the concept of money, etc. It mostly serves as a vehicle for jokes until the greater problems come into focus.

Ralph becomes a youtube star to get the money they need, while Vanellope becomes enamored of a dangerous online racing game. Ralph has no interest in the game, but Vanellope can’t help but go back to it. It isn’t the cause of the growing conflict between the two friends, but the a symptom of a conflict that was already there.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is a good movie, a solid be to its predecessor’s A. It has some inspired jokes and inspired visuals, a story that is at times very touching. Ralph and Vanellope are two strong characters, and the events here build on the previous movie rather than resetting things. However, the movie doesn’t really have place for much of anyone else. Fix-It Felix and Calhoun, who played big roles in the first movie, are almost entirely absent. They aren’t really replaced by anyone. The movie brings in Shank, a racer from the deadly slaughter race, and Yesss, a buzztube algorithm, but they aren’t as big of presences as they could have been. There also is no true villain in the movie. Nearly all of it rests on the conflicts between best friends Vanellope and Ralph. Luckily, that relationship is strong enough to support the whole movie.

This isn’t the best recent Disney movie, but it is still a strong addition to the canon.

****

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What I Watched November 2018

Movies

Bohemian Rhapsody – read review here. **1/2

The Other Side of the Wind – This is an Orson Welles movie that has gone unfinished and unreleased for more than 40 years. It is fascinating, both for how the story of its creation kind of echoes the story it is telling and for how it goes about telling that story. It stars John Huston as an again film director who is showing off his latest movie, also named The Other Side of the Wind, at his birthday party while also trying to secure funding to get it finished. He is surrounded by hangers-on, admirers and former proteges, but is feeling how his career is coming to an end and all of his secrets are being laid bare. It can be a hard watch, but it is nothing if not interesting. ****

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead – this is a companion documentary to The Other Side of the Wind that goes into how the movie came to be made and the struggles Welles faced in the latter part of his career. It is far from essential, but I thought it was pretty good. ****

Chappaquiddick – a dramatization of the incident involving Ted Kennedy in which Mary Jo Kopechne drowned when Kennedy drove his car off a bridge. It has some good performances, but it is dramatically lacking. It wants to have something to say about the corrosive nature of power, but it doesn’t seem to get there. **

The Outlaw King – A very solid historic drama. It gets into the grime and gore a bit much, but otherwise is a very solid movie, centered around a really good Chris Pine performance. ***1/2

Sierra Burgess is a Loser – A high school version of Cyrano de Bergerac. One girl poses as another to send messages to a boy she likes. Eventually, real friendships form. Then troubles come out when the secrets are revealed. ***

Private Life – A married couple goes to great lengths to have a child and the strain that puts on their relationship with each other and with their friends and family. It has really solid performances from Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti. ***1/2

Like Father – A mildly amusing look at a messed up father daughter relationship. Kristen Bell’s estranged dad, Kelsey Grammer, shows up at her wedding. When she is abandoned at the altar, she and her dad end up her honeymoon cruise together. Some mildly amusing and heartwarming events occur. It is fine. **1/2

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – This might be lesser Coen Brothers, but it is still an excellent film. It is a collection of essentially six short films. Each part is a meditation, at least in part, on mortality and the fleetingness of life. It starts with the most attention grabbing part, but there are several unforgettable bits. ****1/2

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – read review here. **1/2

Widows – read review here. ****1/2

Paradox – This is a combination of a really long music video and a haphazard collection of someone’s home movies. It is not a film, not one worth spending even a few minutes with. Just awful. *

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – I know some people who rate this very highly among the Bond movies; I don’t really get it. It is kind of a dull outing, pulled down by a genuinely bad performance by George Lazenby. I don’t have much to say about it. **1/2

The Spy Who Loved Me – This one really didn’t hold my attention. It has a reputation as being one of the better Moore Bond movies, but I found it mostly kind of dull and rote. It goes through the motions, seemingly trying to be more realistic but mostly succeeding at sapping the fun from the movie. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood. **

Moonraker – This movie is dumb. It is a big stupid cartoon. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to like her, there is. This is Bond at his silliest. It is kind of worth seeing just for that. But it isn’t good. **

Daddy’s Home 2 – This movie has its moments, but it can’t seem to even attempt to string its various little sections into some kind of coherent narrative. It is just a smattering of plot threads that the movie hopes will lead to jokes. And sometimes they do, but just as often they don’t, or the jokes they lead to aren’t funny. **

The Pink Panther Strikes Again – There is a level of diminishing returns with the Pink Panther movies, but there is also a certain level of fun just watching this farce play out. It is watching a master at work, even if the result isn’t a masterpiece. This isn’t a great movie, but there are some inspired bits. ***

For Your Eyes Only – A solid Bond entry after the disappointing Moonraker. It highs are pretty high, but it also has some interminable low stretches. I don’t really have a lot to say about it; it is a Bond movie. This is the one I would show people who wanted to see a Roger Moore Bond, it might be his best and you get some idea of what was appealing about his take on the character here. ***

Octopussy – This is the second to last Roger Moore Bond and I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. It’s depiction of Indian people is not ideal, but it is a fun Bond adventure and one of the bad guys has a buzz saw yo-yo. It is a pleasant watch. ***

Extinction – a little alien invasion movie that at the very least has a starring role for the always entertaining Michael Pena. Pena has visions of impending disaster, and struggles to keep his family together as those visions start to come true. It feels kind of low budget, but is entertaining nonetheless. ***

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before – a teenage girl writes letters to her crushes and stores them with her diary. Somehow, all of her letters end up being sent to the boys they were written to. So she sets up a fake relationship with a boy to get the focus off her, but their feelings start to become real. It is a pretty good high school focused rom-com. ***1/2

Last Flag Flying – This Richard Linklater directed movie follows three veterans who haven’t seen each other since their time in the service as they meet up while one of them goes to retrieve the body of his son who died in the Middle East. It is deals with a lot of issues, with death and regret and moving on and grief, through mostly great performance from Laurence Fishburne, a subdued Steve Carell and a boisterous Bryan Cranston. It is really entertaining. ****

Disobedience – Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams star as a pair of women from an Orthodox Jewish community. They had a relationship years ago, which was a factor in Weisz leaving the community. She returns when her father dies, and the women struggle their renewed feelings and their faith. ****

TV

Ozark S2 – I finished season 2. The show it what it is.

Castlevania S2 – This show should be right up my ally, but it really isn’t clicking with me. IT spends so much time with characters and conflicts that I can’t bring myself to care about, then jams all the good stuff into two episodes. It’s just not good.

Schitt’s Creek S4 – I was none too impressed with this show when I first started watching it. It was intermittently funny, but between the terrible title and unlikeable characters I just about quit on it. People I trust gushing over it kept me watching and it transforms rather quickly into something really good. While the title remains terrible, the characters evolve and become some of the more interesting characters in comedy. Season 4 continues that, being both funny and deepening characters that started out as unlikeable and shrill.

Futurama – It has been a long time since I’ve really watched Futurama, not just had it on in the background while I cleaned my apartment. I still maintain that the new stuff is good, but watching this time I realize what the biggest difference between the old stuff and the new. The new Futurama was a lot meaner than the old. It was still capable of the heartwarming stuff, but that was balanced by a deeper cruel streak that changes the complexion of the show. There are moments of cruelty in the early stuff, and those moments usually get laughs because they are unexpected. That almost becomes the default when the show returns, as if the laughs were remembered, but not quite the alchemy that lead to them. Still, I like it all.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 – A great return for this show. Its MST3K, I don’t really know what to say. It’s good; you should probably watch it.

The Romanoffs – The show finished up with some of its best episodes. The second to last one, End of the Line, was an excellent look at a couple traveling to Russia to adopt a baby through a somewhat shady organization, only to be met with the realization that the child might not be what they were promised. The last one is a cold revenge tale that at first appears to be otherwise. Both are well well crafted episodes, as all of these have been. But they also have something more going on. That is more than a lot of these episodes have had. This show has been an exquisitely crafted, but largely kind of pointless and empty. But the episodes where it all works show what The Romanoffs could have been.

Superhero Shows Supergirl is either telling a trenchant political story, or it has bitten off more than it can chew and hasn’t realized it yet. The Flash continues to be fine; not quite as good as you’d hope but not really bad either. Legends of Tomorrow is just distilled fun at this point. Black Lightning is not quite on the same level in season 2 as it was in season 1, but it is still excellent. It is growing in some strange directions.

What I Read November 2018

Two book finished in November; basically my normal pace now. As much as I’d like to get back to my old pace, that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. After finals, I will have a month free of school, maybe I can hit my book goals for December and January. Or maybe not.

The Shattered Tree

Charles Todd

A decent little mystery. This is another one starring Todd’s WWI nurse Bess Crawford. This time, she has a French patient who comes in in the wrong uniform. There a just a lot of mysteries around this patient. When Bess is injured and sent away from the front to recover, she happens to see this patient in Paris, she at first attempts to check in on him and then starts trying to unravel the mystery of who exactly he is. It was entertaining. Bess thinks she’s on to something here and realizes that people in charge are willing to go with a theory that doesn’t really match the facts, so she is determined to figure things out. I will likely check out more of these. They have largely been pretty good.

Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion

Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel

A detailed biography of Justice William J. Brennan Jr., that despite running some 700 pages doesn’t do a whole lot to illuminate who he was. It is very thorough on what he did; on his work over 30+ years as a Supreme Court Justice, but other than noting that Brennan was an intensely private person it does little to illuminate him as a person. Readers will not find out what drove Brennan. It does point out when his personal thoughts seemed at odds with his judicial philosophy, but it doesn’t really tell you anything unless you think there is a disconnect between believing in reporters right to report something but not being happy with what they choose to report. It does go into detail on some of the inner workings of the Supreme Court, following Brennan’s appointment to the court and his solidifying of the Warren Court. There are lots of good details on how the sausage of a supreme court decision is made. Even more detail on Brennan’s role, as he shifted pieces of opinions to get other justices to sign on. It paints Brennan as an effective justice and one willing to sacrifice smaller points to achieve a greater one.

Now Playing Nov 2018

Beaten

Super Mario 3D World – read about it here.

Suikoden V – I’ve written about it repeatedly.

Mega Man IV – This is kind of a disappointing game. MM2 and MM3 are nearly perfect as escalating counterparts, MM2 with it compactness and MM3 with its expanse. MM4 doesn’t really have anything to add. Other than the charge shot, this is just more but slightly worse. I enjoyed it, but it is one of the lesser of the NES games in the series.

Mega Man V – This is something of a bounce back for the series. Its stages just feel a little more inspired than the previous game and the charge shot feels better integrated into the game.

Mega Man VI – I am trying to not make this just a ranking of Mega Man games (for the record: II>III>V=VI>IV>I) but this one feels pretty much on par with 5 in not quite matching 2 or 3 but not being as flat as 4. The new rush adaptors are an interesting addition, as are the stages with alternate paths. The bosses only get halfway where the need to, with some feeling like entrants in a robot fighting tournament but others just being more elemental robots. Honestly, the differences between NES Mega Man games are slight. This one is a lot of fun.

Mega Man Legacy Collection – I’ve had this game for years, but I never really messed around with its challenges. I did not, and can not, complete all of these challenges. I am not that good at Mega Man. However, I did beat most of them. Other than starting the player with a bunch of challenges featuring easily the worst NES Mega Man game, the first, the challenges are wonderful. They distill the games into bite-sized chunks of the best and/or most difficult bits. It works so well. I loved it. I am glad I finally got around to messing with them.

Ongoing

Yakuza 3 – I’ve gotten through the first chapter of this game and I am eager to play some more. Once finals are over I should be able to dig into it a little more. After playing the PS4 entries in the series, this is a step back.

SMT: Devil Summoner – Soul Hackers – This game is stymieing me. I like it generally, but I learned this series with later games that had significant quality of life improvements. There is still a lot that is good about this game, but it is hard to pick off after some time away and recall both what I was doing and how the game works. I am not giving up on this game, but I don’t think I am going to be actively playing this in the near future.

Upcoming

Shovel Knight Plague of Shadows & Specter of Torment – I’ve had these for literally years, but I have never really given them a chance. I absolutely loved Shovel Knight the first time around, and I am ready to stop putting off these two alternate campaigns.

Final Fantasy XV – I got this for Christmas last year and never really gave it the time it deserves. I want to at least make an attempt at it before Christmas this year.

Etrian Odyssey V – I’ve been meaning to get back to this for sometime, and seeing stuff about the coming Etrian Odyssey Nexus makes me want to get through this before the next one comes out.

Yakuza Kiwami 2

I decided to follow up the first Yakuza Kiwami with the recently released remake of its sequel, my other option being the finale of the Kiryu saga Yakuza 6. Going straight to Yakuza Kiwami 2 let’s me do a full series replay before closing out the Kazuma Kiryu’s story. Unlike with the first Kiwami, I never played the original version of Yakuza 2, so this was all new to me.

Okay, maybe all new is an exaggeration; the game isn’t really all that different from the previous games in the series. But the story was all new and it is the first game I’ve played made for the PS4 (Yakuza 0 and Kiwami were both released on both the PS3 and PS4). I have now played all of the numbered games in the series and while Yakuza 2 is not the missing masterpiece that some claim it to be, it is a worthy and exciting entry in the series. Since I haven’t played the original release, I can’t really compare the Kiwami version to it, so I will mostly talk about how Kiwami 2 works on its own terms and not as a remake.

YK2 feels a little like a game that doesn’t really know where it’s going; like Sega never really planned for a sequel to Yakuza and didn’t really know what that sequel was going to be. It struggles to Kiryu back into the Tojo Clan in a logical manner. At the end of the last game, Kiryu ran out after being made head of the Tojo Clan, leaving outsider Yukio Terada in charge while he rode off into the sunset with Haruka. This game starts with the Tojo Clan in crisis, as Terada has proved to be a less than effective leader. When he is assassinated by the Omi Alliance, Kiryu reverses course, dumps Haruka back at the orphanage to try to prevent all-out war between the Tojo Clan and the Omi Alliance.

Since just about everybody was dead at the end of the last game, Kiwami 2 has to repopulate the cast with new characters to kill. The big additions are Ryuji Goda, Kaoru Sayama, and Daigo Dojima. While the additions are great in this game, only Daigo has any lasting influence on the series. Part of that is the nature of Goda’s role in the story. He is the antagonist, one of the few direct foils that Kiryu faces in the series. They set him up as a straight counterpart to Kiryu; they are both ‘dragons,’ both adopted by older leaders in their clan and both the most feared fighters in their respective organizations. Goda is Kiryu gone bad. It works, when the game actually lets them face off. Unfortunately, Goda disappears into the background for a large chunk of the middle of the game. It isn’t as bad as Nishiki no showing most of the first game, which the Kiwami remake went a long way to fixing, but it still gives a little too little room to make an impact. On the other hand, Sayama does leave an impact. She is a pretty straightforward love interest, but she fills that role well. She isn’t a damsel in distress; she is a dangerous and capable player in this drama. It is honestly more her story than Kiryu’s. Too bad she is never seen or heard from again.

The big problem with with this game is that it has no stakes for Kiryu; he is just sort of there. The story would honestly work better if Daigo Dojima replaced Kiryu as the lead. He is brought back in to deal with the power vacuum, could face off against another upstart and he could have the love story with Sayama. Or perhaps it could have taken the road of Yakuza 4 & 5, which split the game among a handful of playable characters, with a lot of these newcomers getting their own chances to shine. I guess I shouldn’t be trying to change the game in my head; it isn’t like it is bad. It just feels like a surprise sequel that was made without much of a plan for where the story would go next. The only thing the game seems sure of is that Kiryu is the protagonist.

I think I like the new engine this game uses. Everything feels more fluid and contiguous. Earlier Yakuza games seemed to switch modes frequently, with there being clear delineations between fighting and exploring, between outside and inside. This engine smooths those distinctions. It makes for a more cohesive experience. I do miss the variety that the other games have, but this is still a lot of fun.

I don’t have a lot to say about Kiwami 2 as a game, the only real change from the previous Yakuza games is that new engine. I love this series and despite my niggling complaints about story stuff, I loved this game. Like all my favorite game series, such as Zelda or Mario, it is so easy to lose yourself in a Yakuza game. There is this delicate, wonderful balance between the hard boiled crime story and the unabashedly weird substories and peripheral stuff. I should clash, but somehow it doesn’t. And while I groused about Kiryu being ill-fitting as the protagonists of this game, he is still and all-time great character. He is the one piece of solid ground in the fluid terrain of this Japanese underworld. On to Yakuza 3.

Creed II

The first Creed was an excellent passing of the torch for the Rocky series. It kept the history of the long running series while opening up a lot of avenues for the future. It also helped that it was just a damn good sports movie, like the original Rocky, a movie were the sport is the focus, the heart of the movie is its characters. Adonis Creed was a nearly perfect new protagonist. As successful as the first movie was, a sequel was almost inevitable. While Creed II can’t match the first movie in any regard, it still manages to deliver a very entertaining movie that stands on its own.

The movie follows the very obvious next point for the son of Apollo Creed; it brings back the Rocky IV connection and has Adonis fight the son of Ivan Drago, the man who killed his father. The plot pulls a lot of notes from the first three Rocky sequels, telling its own story of fathers and their children. Adonis reaches the top and has to find out if he has what it takes to stay there or if he even wants to. This movie revolves around father and child pairings. You have the relationship, or lack thereof, between Adonis and Apollo. You have the surrogate father son relationship between Rocky and Adonis. There is Rocky and his strained relationship his son. Then there is Adonis and his newborn child. Finally, there are the Dragos, who also have unique relationship.

I don’t know that it is breaking any new narrative ground, but the fathers here have to make decisions about what is important to them. It is a decision that Apollo made when he fought Ivan Drago way back in Rocky IV. Now the fathers here face similar choices. Drago is trying to find his lost glory by training his son to fight in his place. Rocky, beaten down by life can’t sit by while Adonis makes the same choices as his father and can’t bring himself to reach out to his own son.

Thing is, it is still a boxing movie. It opens with Adonis fighting for the title, and then falls into the familiar refrain of a new challenger arising and Adonis having to find new strength to take him on. The movie still centers on the relationship between Adonis and Bianca. They are well rounded characters and thanks in large to excellent performances by Michael B Jordan and Tessa Thompson, they feel like real people. Bianca does get a little lost this time, she has her moments but doesn’t get enough to do.

The movie does rely a little too much on the past of the series. This is as much a sequel to Rocky IV as it is to Creed. Rocky IV was the bombastic peak of the series, the movie that went the biggest and most ridiculous. This movie tries to bring that bombast back down to something human. It mostly works, but jumping to this story seems a bit much coming from the largely very grounded Creed. For most of the movie Ivan Drago is the same cartoon villain that he was before. The tone from Rocky IV is not a great fit here and while the movie does its best to avoid it some of that creeps in.

What the movie lacks is just the filmmaking audacity and excitement of Creed. It plays exactly like you’d expect it play. It hits the familiar beats and in the ways you’d expect. I don’t mean to say there isn’t anything unexpected in the plot, only that the pacing follows very familiar tone and structure. It isn’t bad, it just lacks the spark that made Creed feel so fresh and special. Basically what I am saying the movie misses the touch of Coogler.

Creed II is a slightly disappointing follow up to Creed, but it is a solid addition to the Rocky series. It lacks originality, but it makes up for by simply being an effective execution of a formula. At its best, Creed II can be marvelously affecting. The ending alone makes it worth seeing.

***1/2

Suikoden V

As I approached the end of Suikoden V I began to feel increasingly wistful. I slowed down with playing the game, somewhat sad to end it. Mostly because I am fairly certain that this is the last time I will have the time to play through this game. My time for video games is limited and I likely will not have another 50 hours to put into what is honestly a fairly mediocre game. No matter how much I like it overall, I can’t deny the technical deficiencies that make the game something of chore to play at times. If in the future I have time to replay a game, I don’t think I am going to choose this one. Not when I could play Suikoden 2 or any number of SNES or PS1 games.

That doesn’t change my belief that Suikoden V is a very worthy game. It is. It’s plot and it general vibe I find incredibly enjoyable. I like large parts of what it does mechanically, pulling back from the mess that was Suikoden III’s battle system, but keeping a few if its twists to add to the classic formula. The addition of formations instead of just having two lines, making it easier to use the party members you want to use. The war system is a good evolution of what has been an afterthought in most of the series. The final dungeon finally does something interesting with the mass of characters that the player has recruited. That dungeon is right out of Final Fantasy VI, requiring the player to fill out three full six person parties to each tackle a different branch of the twisting maze of a dungeon. It is honestly pretty great. The game doesn’t prepare the player for anything like it. That multiple party set up happens repeatedly throughout Final Fantasy VI before culminating in the massive final dungeon. Here, the game just kind of springs it on you. Still, it is more good than bad. It just feels like an idea that could have been carried through the entire game instead of a one time expansion.

The ending of the story is kind of abrupt. The Prince and his forces have very few setbacks once he starts actually fighting. There is a final desperate gambit by the Godwins (I refuse to believe that name is a coincidence) that never seems close to working even as the Prince is forced to abandon his castle. Mostly because it turns the powerful dragon cavalry against his enemies. Otherwise, there are just so many unforced errors by the Godwins, choices that do nothing to advance their avowed cause but do help turn people against them, that the Princes victory seems inevitable.

The inevitability is part of what sent Sialeeds to the other side, as she switched sides mostly out of a desire to use the civil war as a way to do away with as many of the backstabbing nobles as possible. The fast resolution that the Prince was bringing things to would not have done solve the root problem. Of course, the game doesn’t really show that, it leaves it to interpreting one or two scenes and some incidental dialogue.

The end then comes as something of an anti-climax, with the villain finally discovering a way to use the Sun Rune without attaching it to anyone and the Prince having to stop him before he can do so. There is something off when the Prince sees visions of the people he lost along the way, his parents and his aunt most prominently, but also includes some of the villains. It strikes me as an odd touch to deliberately portray the villains as fascists then also show them smiling in heaven at the end, as though the game believes the villain’s assertions that there is little difference between them and the Prince, since they both want what is best for Falena, even though the Prince has prevented at least two genocides during the game.

One place the game unfortunately shines is in its cast and how ripe for further adventures they seem. The game almost seemed to be setting up a sequel following characters like Shula to Armes. Shula and his two aides/bodyguards are interesting characters that join very late in the proceedings. They feel like there is much more to learn about them, but they play a very small role here. I really like the cast of this game and was left wanting to see more from many of them, mostly in a good way. I’ve already written about how much I like Sialeeds, but there are plenty of other favorites. I like the family from Raftfleet; Logg, Lun and Kisara. It is kind of a sitcom family dynamic, but he can see why these characters work together. Kisara is the second command of Raftfleet, spending most of her time Raja. She is serious and respected. Her husband Logg and daughter Lun are introduced as something of joke characters. But as the game goes on you see the worth of Logg. He shows his bravery and his talents, being repeatedly relied on for dangerous missions involving boats and having a knack for getting things he is not supposed to. It is easy to see how Lun is caught in between her somewhat piratical, adventurous father and her respected mother. She wants to live up to both of her parents, and the game shows her at least partly on the way to doing so. I am also a fan of Nikea, Oboro and Dinn. I don’t think this cast overtakes the one from Suikoden II as my favorite, but there is a lot to like.

All the things I like is what makes this playthrough so bittersweet. I am fairly certain I will never play this game again. Which means I will never see the rest of the various interstitial scenes with these characters. I will never track down all the hidden things stuffed into the corners of this game. It isn’t just this game; I seriously doubt that I will have much time for a lot of time for replaying, or even playing for the first time, games I’ve played over the last ten or so years. That means those games will not have the time to cement themselves as favorites like a lot of my favorite games on early Nintendo and Sega systems have. I don’t foresee a time when I will go more than a couple of years without running through Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI. I doubt I will ever touch many PS2 games again. But I am glad I took Suikoden V out for one last spin. It isn’t a classic. It isn’t great. It is somewhat underrated and a worthy successor to the Suikoden series one great game. I don’t harbor much hope that it will ever be accessible, but I hope a few more people give it a chance.

Widows

Widows is an exquisite piece of pulp. It revels in its genre setting, being a great example of the heist movie, but it has so much more on its mind. That is what sets it apart from other such movies; it frames the heist in a meditation on social and political problems. The combination makes for one of the best movies of the year.

Widows opens with split scene, going back and forth between Harry Rawlings and his gang of thieves on a job with them at home with their spouses, played by our stars Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki. Given the title of the film, it should come as no surprise that the job goes south and the thieves end up dead. Soon the man whom Harry stole the money from shows up at Davis’s home and forcing her to pay him back. Armed only with a book Harry kept with plans for his next job, Davis gathers the other widows to pull off a job and save their lives.

Widows is a great ensemble movie. Viola Davis is the star, for sure, but Rodriguez and Debicki each get their own developed arcs. Then there is the arc going on around the heist, with entitled an entitled alderman candidate Jack Mulligan, played by Colin Ferrell, engaged in a close election with Jamal Manning, David Tyree Henry, who just so happens to also be the crime lord that after Viola Davis. Cynthia Erivo is a late addition to the heist team and again shows that she deserves to be a star.

Davis’s Veronica initially seems emotionally numb. Seeded throughout before being shown in the back half is the event that had already damaged her marriage before her husband’s death. She projects an icy strength, but it is clear that is covering deep pain. The blackmail almost seems like a positive development for her because it gives her something to focus on and a reason to interact with anybody else. Rodriguez has the most plain, the most common, problems to deal with. Her husband left her his gambling debts and two children to care for. She joins the heist because she has no other choice, but she is the most aware of the likely outcome. Finally there is Debicki, long abused and stifled, whose mother pushes her to prostitute herself to make up for the loss of her husband. The heist for her is a chance to finally take action, to prove herself as valuable person.

The growing strength of the women is countered by the utter entitlement of Jack Mulligan. His father was a long serving alderman who is now retiring. Jack is unsure if he even wants the job that he sees as his birthright. With him as an example, Manning looks to exchange a disreputable life of crime for a reputable one. Meanwhile his brother sees no reason to change a something that is working.

Widows doesn’t preach. It lets the story speak for itself. It is easy to compare it to this summer’s Ocean’s 8 and see how that movie was lacking. Ocean’s 8 was a fun piece of popcorn entertainment that was very proud of its girl power cast but lacked in any coherent voice. Widows is less proud of itself for having a cast full of women, but has so much more to say about how the differences in how society treats men and women. Ocean’s 8 was good; it was a lot of fun. Widows is great.

*****

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is an unfortunate misstep for this Harry Potter spin off series. It is absolutely stuffed with plot, which leaves little room for any sort of humanity. The first movie in this series balanced the episodic charm of its protagonist dealing with magical creatures with its portentous undergirding excellently. It was mostly about the fantastic beasts from the title, with the other stuff happening in the background. That balance is flipped in the sequel, which is significantly less satisfying. It is all deep Harry Potter lore and the rise of fascism, with shockingly little magical wonder. That is not unlike the rest of the Harry Potter series, but it is definitely playing to a weakness rather than a strength.

The first act of the movie mostly works to unwind the ending of the first. Grindelwald, imprisoned at the end of the first movie, escapes in the opening scene. An apparently dead character is suddenly alive again; other characters are simply reset. It isn’t exactly clumsy, but it takes up a lot of time in a movie that ends up being rather heavy on plot. Soon after Grindelwald escapes prison, Newt and his old buddy Jacob are on their way to Paris on a mission that is not as unrelated as it initially appears. They are also looking for their respective love interests.

It is hard to talk about this movie because it is all plot. Everything is a spoiler. There are a few encounters with magical beasts, each of which holds just enough wonder to make you wish they were the focus of the movie. When the movie tries to show human emotion, it generally succeeds. When Newt’s brother Theseus attempts to hug him and Newt has no idea how to react it is perfectly heartbreaking. That is followed up by a later attempt by Newt to return the hug that is its equal. To its credit, the movie looks great. All of the performers acquit themselves well. It is just doing way too much, so none of it has the impact it should. Honestly, it feels like the worst parts of the movies that were adapting books, which I could more easily forgive because I knew the explanation and impact from the book. Here, the movie is all there is and it is simultaneously too much and not enough.

The movie is trying to deal with some pretty heavy subjects, and its ending leaves things in the air. Grindelwald is some kind of magical albino Hitler and he manages to sway many people to his side with his transparently self serving speeches. It is timely, what with nationalism and fascism on the rise again, but the movie’s depiction of things manages to be both heavy handed and muddled. It is obvious what Grindelwald represents, but Newt is such a withdrawn character that he isn’t much of a counterpoint. The magical governments are compromised. The would be good guys are lead by a young Dumbledore, but he is completely passive for reasons that are not clear for most of the runtime. Hopefully the sequel manages to successfully answer this movie’s questions.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald really seems to want to be the Empire Strikes Back of Harry Potter movies, but in the end it is the series’ equivalent of The Matrix Reloaded. The question is what does the next movie look like. A strong finish or next chapter could make this simply the slightly clunky middle chapter. A disaster would make this look even worse in comparison.

**1/2

What I Read October 2018

I managed to finish three books in October; I feel great. And I finished a fourth on the first day of November, so I have a head start on next month. I don’t really have time to search out new books, so I am mostly just finishing up things that are already sitting on my shelf. Hopefully I will get back to my expected pace before too long.

The Poisoned Pilgrim

Oliver Potzsch

This is the fourth Hangman’s Daughter story. This time, Magdalena and her husband Simon are part of a pilgrimage to the monastery at Adenachs. There, a sickness breaks out and Simon is tasked with containing it. At the same time, one of the monks is murdered and the suspect just so happens to be an old friend of Jakob, the hangman. The three of them try to solve the eventually plural murders and the mystery of the spreading illness, they run into mad science that call to mind Frankenstein and The Sandman.

I bought this whole series because Amazon had them for cheap. I keep reading them because they are fine. They have a format I like, being mysteries, and an interesting setting, but I have not found any of them to be particularly good. They are simply fine. I am hesitant to lay that on the author when the books are translated, but word choice problems abound. Maybe Magdalena is as shrill in the original as she comes off here, but it is a bad change for what has mostly been an enjoyable character. The mystery here is mostly fun for how many different ideas pop up, the solving it is actually not especially complex. I’ll read the next one sooner or later.

Napoleon A Life

Andrew Roberts

A thorough and enthralling look at the life of the most interesting man of the last two hundred and fifty or so years. Roberts takes a fairly positive stance on Napoleon without descending in hagiography. It is simply very detailed and attempts to give some perspective on a man of whom there are still wildly divergent opinions nearly two hundred years after he died. I will admit to being something of an admirer myself, and I found this book to be amazing.

The highlights are the battle sections. They are detailed and as honest as can be. It shows how where Napoleon was truly successful, with his pace and catching opponents unawares as well as with concentrating his forces to defeat fractured alliances, but it also is honest about his failures, especially in his later defeats, when Napoleon lost the battles though simple, and in retrospect obvious mistakes.

It also gets into the thorniest matters of Napoleon’s life. Like him giving his brothers crowns and kingdoms only to be met with incompetence and unfaithfulness, though much of that was brought on by Napoleon himself. He did pull back from some of the reforms of the French Revolution, but he also helped bring the country out of the Reign of Terror and the subsequent instability. He set codified laws. He committed massacres in the Middle East. He fought many wars, but started few. Napoleon is a complex figure and this book really lays out all of that complexity. I can’t read it without being at least partly enamored of him, and a little sad that his end was what it was. But I also can not ignore the bad. I really liked how Napoleon: A Life painstakingly showed all of him that it could.

Jhereg

Steven Brust

I read a couple of Steven Brust books over the last year or so and I like them fine, and I feel much the same about this one. I got it for Christmas and just now am getting around to reading it. Its fine. Brust has an aversion to explaining anything about his world. I thought that problem with the first book of his I read was because it was a spin off several books deep in the series. But this first book does little to ease the reader in. It is a small problem, much of what isn’t said can be learned through context, but it is a barrier to really getting into the world. Here, he just doesn’t have the space for it. Jhereg is a fairly tight little heist story. Pages of world explaining exposition would kill the pace. However, certain fundamental facts don’t get mentioned until things are pretty far along. Like the fact that the protagonist is married, for instance. Keeping up with the twists and turns, however, require some knowledge of the rules and the book is reticent to give readers that knowledge. I still mostly enjoyed it; it flowed along pretty quickly and tells a fun story in not a lot of pages. I will likely try to pick up some more books in the series when I have time to read again.