Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Micro Reviews: 3 Movies 3 Games 3 Books

Joker


Genuinely unnerving and brilliantly acted. This film really sets the standard for how to do a villain origin story properly. It's an understated comic book film. There isn't that much action or drama. Just a slow descent into deeper and deeper madness. Lots of great dark humor too. There are moments where you'll find yourself laughing but feel kind of bad about it. There has been much fear and loathing in the media about alienated young white men and incels who may be triggered by the film. However given its rather leftist political narrative I actually don't think Joker is particularly controversial. My only two criticisms are that the subplot with the black female neighbor was not executed effectively, and that I would have liked a bit more Joker and less Arthur.

An underappreciated theme of the movie is the importance of fathers. Arthur's descent into mental illness is first triggered by his abusive adoptive single mother and her sadistic boyfriend(s). His sickness is further catalyzed by his search for a father figure. It starts with Murray the late night comedy show host. He has that tragic fantasy of Murray wishing Arthur was his son. Instead Murray betrays him, using video of Arthur at his most vulnerable as fodder for his show. Next Arthur looks to Thomas Wayne after his mother spent years building him up as a kind of wealthy savior. Wayne of course thoroughly crushes this dream after revealing the truth about Arthur's mother. Thus at the core, in spite of what the titular character may think, Joker is a tragedy. It is a story about how easily society corrupts boys without fathers to guide them, in spite of their best intentions.

Grade: B+

Ad Astra


Ad Astra does something difficult: It makes atheism feel hopeful and inspiring. It is a story about sons and fathers, both literally and metaphorically. Brad Pitt's character searches for his father, a great scientist on a mission seeking to find evidence of alien life - essentially representing mankind's search for god - its father. Along the way we get an interesting vision of the future of life in space. I wish the movie had spent more time on fleshing out the Moon and Mars settings. Ad Astra is slow at times, but also hypnotically captivating thanks to its directing and music. It does a lot of things well and its humanist themes are conveyed with refreshing subtlety. Brad Pitt's terse performance conveys the core ideas well. "We're all we've got," he says at one point, speaking of humanity. It comes across as optimistic. Being alone in the universe, it is on us to be good to one another, to determine our own fate. It's a powerful statement even if it lacks the grandeur and audacity of better space operas (Interstellar, 2001). Ad Astra is simply not as memorable of a film. It's also rather anticlimactic and wastes time on subplots that go nowhere. Still, it's worth a watch.

Grade: B

John Wick 3: Parabellum


This movie was fun but also disappointing. This is the weakest story of the three movies by far. We cheesily set up a female John Wick, complete with dog abuse motivation, only for her to disappear halfway through the movie. Halle Berry did great stunt work and in spite of her character seeming kind Mary Sue, I still was annoyed about how the film made a point of showing 'consequences' for everyone who helped Wick except her. Furthermore, Wick's own character lacks coherence. What exactly are his values anyway? He spends two movies getting his friends in trouble for helping him, then agrees to betray them for his dead wife, then decides, "just kidding, totally willing to die for old man Winston now." The film's ending makes no sense. The more they go into the shadowy "High Table" secret assassin organization business, the dumber it gets. Less is more with that stuff.

Wick has basically become a comic book character. This explains why his outfit never changes (him walking in the desert in a suit is pretty funny though) and why villains refuse to kill him in spite of having numerous chances. You have to treat it like a video game - think of it like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden - and just enjoy the action. Just like John Wick 1 and 2, the action alone is worth the price of admission. Gun porn out the yin yang, lots of sexy reloading, and really really good hand-to-hand combat - probably the best in the series on that last point. It's unfortunate how self-aware the series has become. It isn't at Fast and Furious levels of self-parody, but it's getting there. Here's hoping they course correct if they really do decide to continue the franchise in some form. A lower key prequel could be amazing but unfortunately given this film's ending we'll probably get an even sillier John Wick 4.

Grade: C

Monster Hunter World


Monster Hunter World is basically what you think it is. A big action RPG playground where you go around axing dragons in the face. Can't really complain if that's what you're looking for, and with a versatile co-op system it's got a lot of replay value. The story is pretty forgettable. It's not so much a story as a series of thin pretexts for going out and slaying things. As a result Monster Hunter World leans heavily on its gameplay, which is mostly good, but could benefit from being more streamlined. It can feel like doing your taxes at times. Lots of menus, stats, systems, etc. to track. Tedious and repetitive outside of hunting. It lacks the atmosphere and narrative depth of a Souls-like RPG and the charm of a solid hack and slash like Devil May Cry. Still it's fun in spurts. It's probably a letter grade higher if you're a series fan and really into online co-op.

Grade: C+

Undertale


I finally got around to playing through this recently. Very happy I didn't let the haters on /v/ keep me away. Undertale is quite simply one of the most charming and engaging indie games ever made. It is the trifecta of strong narrative, excellent music, and solid gameplay and replayability as well. The characters are all really well done. Literally every single enemy has a story, personality, dreams, fears, etc. They stay with you long after you finish the game. It's no wonder the internet went crazy when Sans was announced for Smash Bros Ultimate. You have to appreciate how much was done with so little - how such a small, simple 8-bit game managed to create such an emotional impact. This is one of those games I can recommend to literally anyone.

Grade: A

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Switch Remake)


In the mood for some good old fashioned Zelda? This reworking of Link's Awakening will scratch that itch. It is everything a remake should be. Improved graphics and music, numerous quality of life improvements, and even a few new features such a cool dungeon creator. It does all of this while remaining very true to the original game. It suffers from some really silly technical issues including frame rate drops and a few glitches it certain points. Hopefully these will be patched soon. Aside from that the only other real criticism that people seem to have is the price. It's not a very long game and being a remake, the full $60 retail price may seem high. It's subjective of course. To me it's very worth it. Thanks to lots of side quests, challenges, and even a new hard mode, Link's Awakening offers a lot of bang for your buck.

Grade: B+

Why Men Rule


It is difficult to find unbiased scientific works on patriarchy meant for lay persons. This is a good attempt. It defines its terms well and is strongly argued. Goldberg's basic thesis about the lack of a real historical example of a non-patriarchal society is compelling given his knowledge of the ethnographic studies. This married to biological research related to hormonal development in boys and girls makes for a strong argument about innate sex differences. Unfortunately this research is a bit dated now. This isn't a great book for understanding the current state of the sciences. The book also loses much of its wind in the second half where Goldberg seems more interested in settling scores and responding to critics than advancing a theory. Would that he had more artfully worked his 'clap backs' into the book's main thread of argumentation. It would have helped the work age better and left the reader with a clearer impression.

Grade: B-

The Foundation Trilogy


Azimov's Foundation series is an imaginative work of large-scale science fiction that will get you dreaming about humanity's future. I read a collection of the first three books - Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. They tell the story of a galactic empire on the brink of collapse and the efforts of brilliant scientists to prevent millennia of dark ages. Inspired by Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the Foundation series works fairly well as an allegory. The writing is honestly not great - Azimov was always a better scientist and visionary than wordsmith. The plot picks up in the second and third books with the introduction of The Mule. Part 1 of Second Foundation is hard to put down once you start and the ending will spur you on to check out the later Foundation novels. Simply stated, if you enjoy classic science fiction, this is a must read.

Grade: A-

The Turner Diaries


The Turner Diaries is a journey into the heart of American white nationalist antisemitism. It cuts to the root of their fears, their hatred, and their dreams. It is not an easy book to get. In fact purchasing it probably puts you on some kind of list somewhere. Given its amateurish feel it is surprisingly well-written. There is some keen political observation relevant to America in the 1970's. One could even call the book prescient in some ways. It is interesting how the most cutting condemnation and criticism is reserved for whites themselves. Make no mistake though; this is a book of hate premised on a fantasy of racial genocide. Modern day alt-right types do not go this far. Guys like Richard Spencer advocate for the white race but disavow violence. The Turner Diaries is a blueprint for would-be terrorists who believe that no peaceful solution remains. We should all hope and work to ensure they are wrong. If you want to really understand the heart of darkness, read this book.

Grade: C