Migraine Day

I had a truly fantastic day out with my wife yesterday. We drove and walked around Indy, hitting up different bakeries to try free samples as part of the Macaron Day event. It felt like a true kick-off to spring, when we finally go out and try different things.

Today came with a vengeance, however. I woke with a headache that morphed into an ever-worsening migraine, and I was more or less incapacitated for much of the day. Finally, with a second Imitrex, my headache’s gradually subsiding. But this won’t be the day of writing and reading I’d hoped it would be. So much for getting to those additional blog posts (or the other things I’d planned to work on today).

But I truly can’t complain! It was a weekend, and a day I didn’t have plans with anyone, so the migraine didn’t disrupt all that much. And I used to get migraines at least monthly…years ago, even more frequently than that. And of course, plenty of people out there deal with even worse migraines with far greater frequency.

Still, it’s a minor irritant to have a day blown like this, and without me even making a conscious decision to, say, sit on the couch with a bag of chips in one hand and a Switch controller in the other.

Out and about once more

It’s not been great walking weather, but I got too impatient to wait any longer. I walked to work yesterday and from work today. My ears were pretty cold by the end each time! But I’m glad I did it. The birds are already out there in force.

Earlier in the week, I watched the anthology series Love, Death & Robots. I’ll try to get some thoughts up this weekend (and at least draft a few other posts I’ve been meaning to get around to), but the short version is that, save for a few of the stories, I really didn’t like it at all.

I’ve also been rewatching early James Bond films with my wife. I don’t know what triggered this for me, but here I am. We’re watching George Lazenby On Her Majesty’s Secret Service tonight, and it’s one of my favorites, mostly because Lazenby is my favorite Bond (most days, anyway–and I haven’t seen every film).

For what its worth, I don’t think Bond’s a “cool” character. He’s an asshole, a killer, a high-dollar thug. Connery’s version is basically a rapist. But I’m very intrigued by this incredibly flawed, incredibly broken man, who has excelled in his chosen profession through sheer luck, nationalism, and martial skill all while spiraling deeper and deeper into vice and addiction. I haven’t read many of the books, but that interpretation of the character seems more explicit there than in the films, which seem eager to cast Bond as suave and desirable. Still, I do enjoy viewing the films with my particular framing in mind. They’re still silly spy thriller pulps, but added nuance is produced this way–perhaps out of nothing.

Review – Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu!

At a bit over twenty-five hours into the game, I’ve reached “The End” for Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! And yet, for the first time in a long time, “The End” doesn’t feel like the true end to the game. I think I’ll still be playing this game–maybe even primarily playing this game–for a while yet.

That level of continued engagement virtually never happens for me, and it should be a clear testament to just how much I enjoyed this game. Sure, I might pursue some end-game content, or tool around in an open-world environment, or eventually restart a new quest in a game with a narrative I adored. But most of the time, I reach the end and very quickly burn out. Right now, I’m eager to keep playing, to battle Master Trainers and defeat the remaining legendary Pokémon and maybe even complete my Pokédex. The fact that a Pokémon game in particular has captured my attention so fully is even more surprising.

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One reason to keep playing: beat this jerk. She destroyed me in my first attempt. What sort of Pikachu uses a move set of Reflect, Toxic, Slam, and Substitute? Not MY sort of Pikachu!

I’ve always been at best a casual Pokémon fan. I was the right age to collect the trading cards, to watch the anime, and to play first the Red and Blue generation and then the Gold and Silver follow-up, but I’ve never fully completed a Pokémon game before. I get bored with them. The franchise nonetheless thoroughly burrowed its way into my childhood such that I like the concept more than the execution, and I can never quite shake my attachment. I am most easily susceptible to nostalgic marketing tools for this franchise over any other. (Star Fox comes close, but I actually like most Star Fox games rather a lot!) So while I lost interest in the Pokémon games after Gen II, I dutifully hopped back into HeartGold and SoulSilver with my wife, walked miles with the Pokémon Go mobile game, and watched Pokémon Origins and Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! I keep getting sucked back in, never more than a casual fan at most, and I’d suspect that my interest waxes and wans in alignment with the broader millennial demographic group.

Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eeveeare targeted directly at that mass of casual millennials who fondly remember the games and anime from childhood, but who couldn’t tell you more than a handful (if any) of the Pokémon past the first 151, and who maybe haven’t played a Pokémon game in any form since the first or second generation. The titular exclamation of Let’s Go! is clearly signaling a connection to Pokémon Go, which obviously ignited a resurgence of interest (that declaration might also serve as a plaintive appeal to the potential consumer). It’s like Nintendo, and Game Freak in particular, realized that there was an untapped mainstream audience who could be brought into the Pokémon fold once more, if only the experience could be…more nostalgic, less difficult or alien.

So here we have a two-title lineup, echoing the main series of games, that plays like one-half Pokémon Go tie-in, one-half Pokémon Yellow remake. I should be frustrated by the blatant attempt to exploit my nostalgia to part me from my disposable income. Yet the game perfectly nails a balance of fresh and familiar, easy and deep, casual and involving, and it does seem to be made with genuine love and care. I jumped right in, misgivings aside, and found that I loved the game deeply.

The familiar is obvious. Pikachu, or Eevee, becomes your constant traveling companion as you journey across the land, collecting the original Kanto Pokémon, earning gym badges in an attempt to become the Pokémon Champion, and breaking up Team Rocket operations that often involve anime carry-overs Jessie and James. That description should sound pretty familiar if you have even a passing knowledge of Pokémon Yellow, the Generation 1.5 title that combined elements of Red and Blue with the popular anime. Yet we have a lot of modern advancements–and not just in terms of graphics and gameplay.

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Yes, the graphics are in fact gorgeous, popping with color and contrast. Kanto environments have more flair and characterization than ever before. Pokémon battles have anime-style action betwixt the turn-based strategizing. Pokémon roam the world, true to scale. There’s more than enough nostalgia-bait here, too; not only is the game world that of the original games, and not only do we have the same gym leaders and same Pocket Monsters as the originals, but in-menu monsters and items look like the pixelated sprites of yore, and the monsters have cries that typically sound like the original jagged yowls.

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But the improvements to story, characterization, and pacing were most surprising. For one thing, you develop a lot closer bond with your partner Pokémon, as this Pokémon is always with you, often interacts with you and the world (including in some heartwarming cutscenes), is available to play with in first-person and to dress in cute outfits complete with dozens of accessories, and is the only one to learn (in a separate move list outside of what it uses in battle) the Special Moves that allow you to progress further and interact more with the world around you. You not only spend a lot of time with Pikachu (or Eevee) and get plenty of feedback to show that it cares about you, but you also experience the world through your partner Pokémon. The game design itself forges a close bond between trainer and partner.

But you feel that to some degree with the other Pokémon, too. You can have those currently in your party trail behind you (your partner stays propped on your shoulder). These other Pokémon will react to the environment, seek attention, and discover items–never in an annoying way, and usually triggered by your direct initiation of contact. They follow closely behind, but if their rudimentary path-finding (or simple size) causes them to get stuck, they automatically return to their Poké Ball and reemerge closer to you. So the other team members also feel useful and alive, never annoying, even outside of battle. And over time, with feedback indicating that they care about you, whether by recovering from poison in-battle because they don’t want you to worry (as the flavor text says) or simply reacting to you with a cheery expression and call, you become attached to them too. I became locked into a core team very early on. The first three slots became immutable, and the back end filled with reliable stalwarts I wouldn’t give up for anything by the middle of the game. I could have gone occasionally for more powerful or interesting or varied monsters, but I was simply too invested in my team by that point.

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The human characters are more interesting than before, as well. Instead of a snobbish, short-tempered jerk, your rival is your close childhood friend, someone who challenges you but also supports you. They want to be the best, but they want you to succeed too. I was rather fond of my rival by the end. Blue, the rival from the original games, appears in the first third of the game as an experienced older trainer who takes interest in the two new kids from his hometown. This new take on Blue is wiser and more experienced, but also obviously a good person. Oak is a goofy doof. Gym leaders and others are introduced recurrently throughout the game, so that you view them as unique individuals instead of mere goalposts. The boundaries between “ally” and “enemy” often shift and typically reflect friendly, sporting rivalries. Even Giovanni, leader of the Team Rocket criminal organization, has a clear redemption arc that seems more pronounced than I recall it.

Furthermore, the world just feels more like a lived-in setting. We’ve had a couple decades of Pokémon games that have gradually expanded the universe at this point, and that really pays off with this return to Kanto. There are references to other regions, Pokémon, cultures, and characters outside of the Kanto region, and some Alolan forms of Kanto Pokémon and at least one Alolan character appear in the game. I suppose that achieving this effect isn’t so difficult when the source material’s already there, but the additions do make the world seem larger than what we see in the game, and that’s a nice touch.

It’s the gameplay that is the most modernized and divergent from other Pokémon titles. I loved the changes here, but I suspect that hardcore fans might face these changes with ire. Pokémon battles still play out more or less the same against rivals, but catching Pokémon has been completely revitalized thanks to the influence of Pokémon Go. Now, instead of battling a Pokémon and attempting to capture it when it’s weakened, you simply cast Poké Balls at wild monsters that you encounter. Form matters; at least when playing in console mode with a Joy Con, you swing the controller like you’re tossing an actual Poké Ball, and speed, direction, and timing directly translate to the game actions. While the actual catch chance is somewhat randomized, you can improve those chances by timing your toss to hit a Pokémon in an ever-shrinking ring (if the ball is in a smaller-sized ring, you have more likelihood of success and a better experience bonus on capture) and by using items to calm the Pokémon. Very powerful and rare Pokémon require you to fight them like a normal battle, but rather than having to get them into a sweet spot of weakened-but-not-fainted, you just have to defeat the Pokémon, switching the mode over to the standard catching mini-game after that. While Pokémon appear in the world randomly, they still physically appear, and so you can try to navigate around them if you’d prefer to avoid an encounter. Additionally, it’s always very easy to run from a wild Pokémon encounter. On top of this, your whole party gains at least some experience from every battle and catch, regardless of whether they entered the fray, so long as they’ve not fainted (and it’s easy to transfer Pokémon from team to storage box and back–the box is always available from the main menu). All of these changes combine to virtually eliminate grinding. Not once did I have to churn through wild Pokémon encounters to gain the experience needed to finally take on a gym or the Elite Four. Battles with trainers can often be avoided, but I sought them out–they were fun, and they could be anticipated! No more worrying about random encounters wearing you down in between fights with the NPC trainers. Plus, with Pokémon-catching operating under its own mechanics, the catching and battling systems were sufficiently distinct that they felt like complementing halves to a whole; they never felt like competing areas of interest, and they never wore me down with tediousness and repetition.

I still had Pokémon faint, but I never had a full-team wipe-out. There were some sections that felt like hard slogs–challenges, though not overly challenging. Occasional battles against gym leaders, Team Rocket higher-ups, and the Elite Four were genuine struggles requiring careful strategy and resource management to prevail. Still, while Pokémon has never been the most challenging game, this was in many ways the easiest (and simply most fun) version of Pokémon I’ve ever encountered. And yet it wasn’t so easy as to be uninteresting or unrewarding. I never lost interest, and I had (and have) a constant drive to keep playing and discovering.

With the JRPG random encounters retooled and the grinding eliminated, Let’s Go! became, to me at least, the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the games: a lengthy ode to the joys of childhood exploration. Shigeru Miyamoto famously said that The Legend of Zelda was inspired by his childhood adventures in the outdoors, but Pokémon has always been the game most clearly connected to childhood freedom and imagination for me. The mundane, walking through a grassy field in an abandoned lot, or riding your bike down the street, or taking a trip to the beach, is filled with the pure wonder and spirit of imaginative adventure that I think most of us lose, or find dampened, as adults. Those feelings were rekindled in me in playing this game, and that meant a lot to me–especially coming out of a long winter while dealing with a variety of workplace changes and personal life stressors. It was re-energizing, and I don’t want to leave that behind just yet.

You may or may not have noticed that I have included fewer pictures than usual, and that what pictures are included are not much varied in location or effect. This despite my great affection for the game. The truth is that I just snapped a few pictures at the very end. The game isn’t played using both Joy-Cons. You can activate a second Joy-Con, which acts as the controller for a “support” trainer in encounters, but I didn’t touch it. As I’m right-handed, I relied on the right Joy-Con. My experience with the controller largely felt great; it was pretty responsive and accurate. I just didn’t think to keep the second Joy-Con with me, except for in any given moment when I thought, “Oh, that’d make a nice picture,” but at that point I’d be too absorbed to collect the other Joy-Con. And the capture function, even if playing in single Joy-Con mode, is only available on the left controller (just as the home function is only available on the right). I think the single-controller setup (outside of portable mode, which I haven’t actually played yet) mostly felt good, but the lack of a capture button was a small annoyance–especially since this game fully supports pictures and videos.

On the subject of controllers, I did get the Poké Ball Plus accessory. The ball includes access to release a Mew into your game, but the roughly $50 price point does not justify buying it for that reason alone. As a controller in the game, it feels right for a Poké Ball, but it also felt a little small and unwieldy to use as an actual controller, and its control scheme–with the cancel button on top and the accept button triggered by clicking down on the analogue stick–was a messy nightmare. I didn’t really put much effort into getting comfortable with the toy, especially when the Joy-Con controller worked so well with the game. Unless you for some reason really, really want Mew, this Poké Ball should be passed over. That said, its functionality with Pokémon Go could be redeeming, and the ability to continue interacting with the mobile game even while keeping phone in pocket could make for an immersive and fun experience once we get back to walking weather. If I actually find that I use the Poké Ball for this purpose, then it’ll be a lot closer to worth it.

All in all, I loved this game. I recognize its role as a regurgitated remake in a massive franchise preying on my nostalgia. I can’t get around that fact. But it wasn’t a soulless cash grab. It was a game targeted at my type and made with attention and care. It rewarded my time. Poké Ball accessory aside, this was a meaty and valuable adventure that I’m glad I took. While I can’t speak for hardcore fans, I can fervently recommend this to fellow lapsed millennial Pokémon fans, and I suspect that this could be the game that launches another generation of youthful Pocket Monster loyalists.

DST & Pokémon

I’m not necessarily opposed to daylight saving time. But I am opposed to the back-and-forth tug of the time changes. If we were always in standard time or always in daylight saving time, I’d be happy.

It’s tough enough to get through the looooong winters without having the day snapped back to suddenly return your mornings to darkness once more. At this point, I’ve lived in Indiana long enough that I should be better able to cope. Still, that sudden shift crushes my budding optimism every year. At least in Florida, I’d either be in central time or not quite so far to the west when in the eastern time zone.

I suppose I’m just tired and grumpy this week. I’ll get over it.

But in the meantime, I’m playing Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! It’s really delightful. It’s not exactly a current-gen remake of Yellow–it takes ideas from more recent games, but it mostly still plays like the original. But it certainly is a remake with improvements large and small. The graphics are lovely, the story and characters are improved in a variety of ways, and there are lots of fun changes like actually seeing true-to-scale Pokémon everywhere in the world (random monsters appear in the game world instead of automatically generating a battle). The most radical changes make catching Pokémon quite similar to Pokémon Go, and I rather enjoy this. Trainer battles play more or less like the classic games, and with the switch to a catching minigame with its own separate system, battling trainers and catching Pokémon become two wholly unique processes that keep things feeling fresh while also basically eliminating the need for grinding.

I’m only a casual Pokémon fan, though the franchise has been present in my life since childhood. As such, I’m probably the target audience: nostalgic millenials who didn’t keep up with later generations of the games. But there’s enough, I think, to appeal to hardcore fans and those who have never played anything Pokémon-related before.

The game is fun, colorful, nostalgic yet fresh. It’s as close to pure-spirited as a colossal franchise product like this can be. I’ve only been playing for a couple days, amounting to a few hours and three gyms. But this was exactly the game I needed to help me get through the drag of post-DST March…

Review: Starlink

My initial impressions of Starlink: Battle for Atlas proved to be a pretty accurate indicator of how I’d feel about the game as a whole. It remained fun and colorful, and the act of exploring the star system remained a delight throughout, but it was not a perfect game.

As I mentioned in that first post, I opted to play through the game on easy mode, and this meant that combat was a low-risk, low-stress activity. Despite that, some sub-bosses (typically those guarding special relics hidden on each world) proved to be truly challenging, and those fights were the most interesting, largely because I was often encountering higher-level enemies earlier than I otherwise would, and because those fights were often in interesting environments that rewarded navigation-as-evasion in somewhat cramped spaces. But combat as a whole began to feel repetitive. There were certain strategies and weapons to keep in mind with certain types of enemies. The legions of ground troops (pun intended: the enemy robots are in an army known as the Legion) largely fell into only a few different types: fire, ice, and gravity-warping. Figure them out, and it’s a simple matter to address most fights.

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Big bosses were similarly limited in variety, although there was at least an interesting cycle to addressing them. Dreadnought starships are colossal vessels placed around the star system, which release Primes, huge arachnoid mechs, that attempt to corrupt worlds by activating and spreading Extractors, towers that extract valuable resources from the planet’s core. Extractors remotely transmit energy generated from the harvested materials to the roving Primes, making them bigger and more powerful; Primes pass on some of that energy to the Dreadnought stationed within their sector of the star system, thus improving its power in turn. The best route to take to free a sector is thus to clear out each planet in that sector one by one, shutting down Extractors to locate a Prime before moving on to the next world, eventually leaving the Dreadnought weakened. This balance of powers is interesting in concept but boring in execution, since you once more reach a point where you are just dealing with the same three recycled enemy types again and again: surface towers guarded by beam-emitting nodes and occasionally mid-to-high-level Legion forces, mobile spider-mechs (which do at least offer variety through their evolving forms as they grow in power, although this is a linear and repetitive trajectory too), and space battles against fighters and turrets followed by on-rails races to take out the power cores on the capital ships.

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Dreadnoughts will redeploy Primes as time passes, and (in the endgame at least) new Dreadnoughts will eventually enter the system to replace their defeated comrades. Apparently the spread of the Legion is determined by difficulty level, so a higher-difficulty play-through could make things more interesting (or maybe just more tedious). Each world can gain Alliance power, providing you more resources and better resisting the Legion, if you clear out Legion emplacements and build and upgrade structures. These structures are limited and serve specific purposes, like showing more of the planet map, generating revenue, producing mods for your ships, or increasing the defensive capabilities of the planet. The back-and-forth tension between Alliance and Legion provides one of the clearest sources of comparison to Mass Effect 3–though this system at least feels simpler and obviously involves a lot less territory.

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(Actually, Mass Effect feels like a heavy reference point for the game–see the lore entries below for further examples.)

Still, while the game does not offer an extraordinary strategic element, and while its combat and side missions are repetitive, it remained consistently fun. I really liked flying around as Fox. I liked the chatter between the characters on the Starlink and Star Fox teams over the comms. I liked scanning new creatures and discovering new artifacts. I enjoyed simply zipping through the skies of any given planet and observing the unusual terrain and towering biological, artificial, and geological structures rising from the surface.

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All the above fits in with my earlier conception of the game. There’s plenty of good with the bad, and the game itself does not get boring despite the repetition and simplistic elements. But the biggest letdown for me was in the development (or lack thereof) of the characters and story.

The game immediately introduces us to the core cast of the Starlink Initiative. They’re unique, distinctive, and likable. They all bring something to the table, and they all have a lot of flair and personality. When their leader, St. Grand, is captured by the cult that has taken command of the Legion, the team’s heartbreak is real, and I was totally behind their drive to recover this obvious father figure. Similarly, the Star Fox team is characterized such that each member of the team has a clear and unique personality and role: Fox is the pure-hearted leader who will always fight for good, Falco is the cocky ace pilot, Peppy is the overly cautious mentor who’s past ready to retire, and Slippy is the goofy tech genius and support character. They’re written and voiced such that they feel like they’ve actually known each other a long time and are a sort of family of their own; the silly back-and-forth between Slippy and Peppy was exceptionally delightful for me.

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But the characters don’t really evolve! Brilliant scientist Mason Rana, who designed the swappable Starlink tech, has the most presence on screen and is given the clearest arc, which makes sense; he’s the default pilot for the player. That arc is somewhat mundane, ultimately: he gains in confidence and steps out of his mentor St. Grand’s shadow to become a capable leader in his own right. Everyone else is largely in the background of this surrogate family, just glad to be along for the ride. But that surrogate family keeps growing, with more and more alien pilots, some of them having brief introductory interactions to explain their appearances, some of them apparently just showing up in the background of cinematic cutscenes. I didn’t know who everyone was by the end, but long before that I stopped understanding why so many of the new characters bothered to join. The game’s moving too fast and loose to bother nailing down these points.

The pacing of the plot doesn’t really lead anywhere, either. Here’s a very spoiler-heavy summary of the plot: the team recovers St. Grand, who was used by the Legion cult to make the rare refined fuel Nova (since he had rediscovered how and the secret was lost to most of the galaxy); St. Grand dies, apparently as a result of the side effects of the mind control he’d been briefly placed under; the team seeks to avenge St. Grand and liberate the star system; and at the end, the cult leader becomes part of some mech or something and a lone fighter shoots him a lot to save the day. I’m leaving out very little, mostly some side quests meant to dole out character background information, which for some reason is presented in cutscenes that are in a motion-comic style, instead of the cinematic scenes used for the main plot.

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Sadly, the Star Fox storyline is also abruptly rushed to a conclusion. Spoilers again: Wolf intends to build an army of Primes to take over Corneria, but Fox and friends figure it out and blow up his interstellar ship before he can escape, leaving him to flee in a damaged fighter with his tail between his legs. The team then decides to stay on with the Starlink group to clear the system of the Legion threat.

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The game ends all too quickly, and you’re allowed to keep wandering the star system, exploring more and clearing out remaining Legion encampments. Surviving Legion captains will continue to launch Dreadnaughts into the system to create a perpetual loop of combat scenarios. There’s stuff to do, but it all feels rather empty and pointless.

The thing is, these weaknesses are so predictable, at least in retrospect. It’s a toys-to-life, open-world game. The goal of the game is to provide a playground for kids to zoom around with their toy collection. It’s going to provide a variety of pilots and ships and weapons to encourage players to buy more and more of the toys, even if you don’t need to buy more to beat the core story. (Some of the elemental puzzles you’d have to unlock to 100% the game would require other elemental weapons or at least a lot of tedious transportation of canisters between sites). And because the game company wants you to buy lots of pilots and ships, they’re going to give you glimpses of those pilots and ships–really unique ship and alien designs can provide those glimpses without requiring a lot of time spent on characterizing these additional pilots in the story. This also means that there can’t ever be any real narrative stakes for the characters: killing a character or blowing up a ship can only happen if that character or ship won’t be available in the player’s toy box, to swap in at any time.

The open-world endgame feels empty because it’s there to let the player throw in different pilot and ship combinations without having to start the game from scratch. You can build on the RPG-lite leveling of pilots and ships, the modifications of fuselages and wings and weapons. And the ever-present potential for the recurrence of an external threat always presents the possibility of additional content to purchase in the future.

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This does not make the game bad. But it is unappealing to me. And it should have been obvious to me because that’s what the game’s basic design model would require.

So at this point, I don’t think I’ll play through the game on a higher difficulty. And I don’t think I’d increase the difficulty in my current save just to see what the higher Legion threat looks like in the endgame. I could see myself returning to Starlink at some point in the future, just to cruise about the system. For now, the 20-ish hours I’ve put in seem sufficient, and I’m not particularly hungry for more.

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That said, what I really want is to see an open-world Star Fox game that scraps the toys-to-life model and focuses on a meatier narrative set in the Lylat System. Starlink shows that this should work, and I think it also shows that good characters and good gameplay can only take a game like this so far; there still have to be engaging narratives (in and out of the main story) that make player actions feel worthwhile.

Starlink Complete

So, I finished Starlink earlier in the week. It’s good but not great. Gameplay is quite good, actually, but there were issues with scope and narrative and characterization that I think are largely resultant from the toys-to-life model.

I want to get a full review up soon, but it probably won’t be until Sunday. Bye for now…

A week’s worth of movies

I’ve watched more movies than usual in the past week, and my wife suggested I write a post to summarize my thoughts on each. Many of these films wouldn’t normally get mentioned on this site–though I admit my criteria are somewhat arbitrary, shifting, and unclear.

So, here you are, Sam!

We started the week with Ant-Man and the Wasp. It was fun but unexceptional. I wouldn’t really mention it except for this post. Lots of humor, lots of heart, and a surprising amount of cool ’60s pulp sensibility, but not a lot of purpose. It actually annoyed me that a mid-credits scene tied the film into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, taking a largely whimsical film and inserting the illusory stakes and high death count of Infinity War. Special mention should be made of Michael Peña’s performance; he’s just incredible, and nothing highlights his range more than the jump from lighthearted and lovable sweetheart Luis in the Ant-Man films to the angry, bitter, aggressive, and courageous DEA agent at the heart of Narcos: Mexico.

Next up was American Gangster, and I had originally planned to write a post on this film alone. I might still do that. It instantly became one of my favorite crime movies, on par with something like Goodfellas or Casino–and the accelerating pace of the film as it progresses over the rise and fall of Frank Lucas’s criminal empire invited further parallels. I was therefore not at all surprised to see Nicholas Pileggi listed as an executive producer (though this was written by Steven Zaillian). Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe were absolutely mesmerizing as Lucas and detective-turned-prosecutor Richie Roberts, respectively. And I was surprised to see Josh Brolin, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Idris Elba pop up in significant background roles (many other great actors and performances here, but those were the ones that immediately stood out to me). A film directed by Ridley Scott is a little bit of a wild card, but American Gangster definitely stands among the good ones. It was interesting to read afterward how far the film deviated from actual events, and it probably warrants a discussion about how far true events can be stretched for dramatic purposes, especially if the film will still be marketed as a true story. Either way, Mark Jacobson’s New York Magazine article, “The Return of Superfly,” which was the basis for the film, has been bumped near the top of my reading list.

Then I watched The Incredibles 2. I liked that the sequel seemed like a movie with new ideas to explore using the setting and characters from the original. It was the rare sequel that felt like it had its own purpose for existing, and it built on the original film in fun and clever ways. I enjoyed it a lot, and I especially appreciated the added tension between husband and wife, the slick retro-futurist setting, and the still-interesting dynamics of this superhero family. I don’t know if I have much to say about it now, though. It was fun, but I don’t know that it will stand out much in my mind even half a year from now. (Ironically, Sam suggested this post in large part because she wanted me to write out my thoughts on this movie in particular, and yet it’s the one that I have the least to say on now.)

The best animated film I watched this week was Coco. This movie was so pure and beautiful. It would have been easy to do a movie that was about the young protagonist following his dreams despite his oppressive family situation; it would also have been easy to have a movie where family love and support is more important than chasing ambition. This movie very carefully found a middle ground, in the process developing rich themes and a complex cast of characters who all had room to learn and grow. I cried a lot, both out of heartbreak and joy. All that said, at the end of the day, the afterlife scenario laid out leaves some questions for me. Why do some of the deceased not only seem surprised but scared of the presence of a human boy? Why is there a second life after death that in turn leads to a second death? Do people have to work to have a decent afterlife? Is the relative affluence of a person tied to their remembrance by the living, and if so, how? Can people choose to appear any age? Do kids stay kids and the elderly stay elderly? To be fair, these are the sorts of problems inherent in many common conceptions of the afterlife, but the realm of the dead seemed fully realized and yet left ample opportunities for this sort of fridge-logic concern.

In other Pixar news, I also watched the new short film Kitbull, which similarly prompted a lot of crying for a lot of reasons. I have a lot of feelings about Kitbull. It hurt me and it made me feel really happy. It’s sweet. It’s touching. And the artwork and animation are great. With two Pixar feature films and this short, I guess I had a fairly Pixar-heavy week.

So after Coco was In Bruges. A dark comedy of two idiotic assassins camped out in the eponymous city while waiting for instructions from their benefactor, In Bruges started slow for me, but its ending was bittersweet, tragic, and ultimately ambiguous. I found much of the film crude, and Colin Farrell’s younger assassin character is excessively vulgar, often making ugly comments about race, sex, gender, and dwarfism (a dwarf actor, who is also a racist drug addict, serves as the center of a very bizarre B plot throughout the film, tying into the conclusion in a startling way that is ridiculous and kind of funny). The ugly humor, plus a proud ignorance and practically manic energy boiling over into child-like impatience, makes Farrell’s character difficult to like, and liking him and wanting to see him live become pretty central to the latter part of the film. Thankfully, Brendan Gleeson’s older mentor figure is sort of sweet and charming, and his faith in and love for his partner provides enough of a push to keep me invested. The best part is that the film’s twists and turns were genuinely unpredictable; the movie kept throwing me off course every time I thought I’d figured it out. I like weird films, and I like crime films, and I’m a little surprised that I never got around to this one before now.

To keep mixing things up, I watched All Work All Play next. This is the film I would least expect someone to recognize. It’s a documentary about professional esports, tracking the 2015 “season” of the IEM professional games. This was the only film I watched this week that I didn’t like. There were a lot of interesting individual stories, but nothing really got focused on. The team that had the most focus, set up as underdogs, was Cloud9, which was crushed in the championship and largely dropped from the film’s concern after that. The American team that won the championship, Team SoloMid, was injected intermittently throughout. Team WE, a Chinese team that seemed to actually be interesting underdogs, barely appeared at all. The personal life, ambition, and struggles of championship organizer Michal Blicharz represented the closest to an emotional core for the film, and I could have watched a whole film about him, his wife, and their child, but they were ultimately de-emphasized in favor of the tournament players (still, Blicharz serves as our guide throughout the events of the film). There were so many faces and names, and there was not enough focus. Curiously, the rules of League of Legends are explained, but then we barely see any coherent game footage. Additionally, the film felt overly defensive of esports as a real sport. I actually felt less inclined to view professional gaming as a legitimate sport by the end–certainly there’s a lot of skill, and the professional level of gaming is impressive, but I can’t help but wonder if “sport” is overused as a descriptor, if we shouldn’t come up with new descriptions or categories for tasks that aren’t strictly physical. Additionally, esports seems like a fundamentally flawed product that is ultimately bad for its players. The film almost unintentionally observes players acting like immature children, with at least one parent expressing concern about their emotional well-being. Plus, pro gamers are considered “old” before they hit thirty, yet their potential earnings appear to be considerably less than that of professional athletes. This seems like a situation setting these players up for doom in later life, especially since many of them are college dropouts who are probably too young to be making responsible financial decisions. The cheery optimism about the profession, and the attempt to combat negative stereotypes of pro gaming, results in the dodging of several thorny issues. Basically, every decision made by the documentarians, and the resultant lack of focus, made for an underwhelming narrative and uninteresting presentation. This documentary, if nothing else, helps to showcase how much of an art the genre of documentaries can be. When things go wrong, a documentary fails to be a good story worth watching, even if the subject matter should be interesting.

I closed out my week’s viewings with a solid choice, though: The Graduate. Dang, I know it’s a classic, but I didn’t realize just what a brilliantly neurotic dark comedy it would be. Dustin Hoffman is perfect as the insecure, depressed, aimless college grad Ben who is seduced and exploited by the predatory yet tragically broken Mrs. Robinson, played to perfection as well by Anne Bancroft. It’s in many ways an intriguing psychological study, and a scandalous presentation of upper-middle-class life, but it was the comedy that stuck with me the most. The dialogue was hilarious, the delivery impeccable, and The Graduate is loaded with strikingly absurd visuals, like the backyard pool scuba session or Hoffman’s swinging of a cross to ward off enraged wedding attendees. The cinematography in general is brilliant; I loved how Ben was often small and distant in the frame, overshadowed, if not surrounded, by Mrs. Robinson in the foreground, and I loved it even more when the film reverses this dynamic in a key moment. I only wish that Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) was given a little more purpose. She’s ultimately an object used in the power struggle between Mrs. Robinson and Ben. Sure, Ben loves Elaine and Elaine loves Ben, but it’s not clear why; I suspect that the intention was that Elaine is in many ways a younger version of her mother, someone who has yet to be broken and twisted by the world. Still, Elaine is mostly acted upon, and even in the wild ending, it’s unclear if she’s yet to make a decision that she truly wanted for herself.