For those who celebrate it, I hope you had a great Thanksgiving! November proved to be a little hectic, but it wasn’t too bad. I was kind of hoping to get five reviews finished, but that’s not how things panned out. Oh, well.
Films watched in November 2019:
- Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019)
- Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold, 2019)
- Honey Boy (Alma Har’el, 2019)
- Dark Waters (Todd Haynes, 2019)
- Knives Out (Rian Johnson, 2019)
- Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (Hiroshi Inagaki, 1954)
- Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (Hiroshi Inagaki, 1955)
Joker was a film that had a lot to say about class disparity, mental illness, and the negative effects media can have on society. Being equal parts visceral and gritty, there was a surprising amount of nuance to the themes it explores, having a level of applicability lacking in many of its contemporaries. It is therefore not terribly surprising in light of these factors that a significant portion of the current wave of American critics hated it.
American critics would have you believe it’s a polarizing film, but in practice, a majority of the common theatergoers ended up liking it just fine. I’ve sought out a few essays that tried to explain why Todd Phillips’s film inspired so much ire in critics, but I wasn’t able to find a consistent answer. One source suggested that the film criticized a lot of the values modern critics hold dear in how it humanizes a faction of people they usually have little-to-no empathy for. I’m not sure what the answer is (or if there even is a definitive answer), but I do think something isn’t adding up here. This is a film that managed to win the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, following the exemplary efforts Roma and The Shape of Water, yet several American critics would have you believe Joker isn’t worth the time of day. I am therefore glad it ended up doing well (the first R-rated film to gross over one-billion dollars, in fact) because it really feels like critics and journalists alike wanted it to fail. Notably, I ended up seeing it several weeks into its run, and the theater was still reasonably crowded. I’m led to believe that by that point, the audience realized they’d been had. Because of this, I liken the triumph of Joker to the triumph of various indie games in the latter half of the 2010s in that it was a case in which the fans proved they had better taste than the alleged experts.
After that, I ended up seeing Ford v Ferrari. Despite not being a fan of auto sports, I really enjoyed Ron Howard’s Rush when it came out, so this was another one I looked forward to. It certainly lived up to the hype, detailing a classic underdog victory – albeit one in which the underdog entity wasn’t presented in a completely flattering light. It’s not often you see a 2010s film have that extra bit of nuance, so I’m glad that it did.
On Thanksgiving, I saw Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy – a film based off of Shia LaBeouf’s relationship with his father growing up. What I want to know is how Shia LaBeouf went from being a complete joke to turning in not one, but two great performances in 2019. I think most people (including me) were ready to write him off as his generation’s Matthew Broderick in that he was great as a young actor, but not so much as an adult. Unless I hallucinated this film and The Peanut Butter Falcon, it appears that the assumption, while not entirely unfair, turned out to be completely wrong.
The next day, I attempted to see Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. This plan hit a snag when I tried to get seats only to learn the remaining ones were positioned right next to the screen. I then decided to see Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters – a film about one lawyer’s determination to bring the crimes of the chemical production company DuPont to light. It made a really good case as to why these major companies need to be open to scrutiny. When they’re not, they often do the wrong thing in the name of making money – even if they themselves end up paying the price in the long term.
Finally, that Saturday, I ended up seeing Knives Out. Rian Johnson became a polarizing figure after The Last Jedi due to his controversial take on the franchise. I can appreciate that he wanted to put his own unique spin on the series, but I am firmly in the camp that believes it to have been a failure. I didn’t think it was a disaster when I saw it, but after hearing what detractors were saying, I ultimately found they were making sounder arguments than the supporters. You know how I consider the media’s approval of A24’s immoral marketing campaign for Ex Machina a “jump the shark” moment for film journalism? Well, I would actually say their assessment of The Last Jedi proved to be a “jump the shark” moment for film criticism. Critics, as with anyone else, are free to like what they like, but their defenses of the film were incredibly weak. From an intellectual standpoint, it’s especially damning that, when confronted with hard evidence of film’s shortcomings (such as Rey being a Mary Sue and the innumerable plot holes), their arguments ranged anywhere from goalpost moving…
…to flat-out stating they’re not a big deal.[DISCLAIMER: I actually like Rey as a character, but there’s no getting around that the writers’ refusal to seriously challenge her is a gigantic problem with the sequel trilogy.]
Critics had reached the point where they ceased looking at the film with a critical eye and began actively praising weak writing – all while swatting down legitimate criticisms lodged at it by those opposed to them.
I know that has absolutely nothing to do with Knives Out, but those were the factors I was considering as I was placing the order for my ticket. To be fair, The Last Jedi was a lot like the 2016 Ghostbusters in that it was a significant, highly visible misstep made by a competent director. I say that because, like Paul Feig with A Simple Favor, Rian Johnson managed to bounce back big time with Knives Out. With The Last Jedi, Mr. Johnson seemed to buy into the critics’ unusual hostility towards sequels and almost completely disregarded the canon. With Knives Out, on the other hand, he was more in control of the narrative, which was to the film’s benefit given that it was indeed a standalone experience. It’s a stellar murder mystery plot that will keep you guessing until the very end. If you were apprehensive about seeing it after being let down by The Last Jedi, I can tell you it’s worth your time.
Meanwhile, at home, after having taken advantage of Barnes & Nobles’ Criterion sale last July, I began watching Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy – a fictionalized account of the legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto. It really is fascinating as both a character study and a sprawling epic, so if you can see these films, I recommend doing so.
Games reviewed in November 2019:
Final Fantasy Mystic Quest
Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is guilty of having drastically and purposely limited what kind of audience it can have. If you’ve played any serious JRPG and enjoyed it, you’re well past the point where it has anything to offer you. I can envision supporters telling me that I can’t really criticize what is intended to be a game-long tutorial. To that, I would respond that even if it could’ve been useful in that regard, there’s no getting around that the genre has changed quite a bit since 1992. Anyone using Mystic Quest as a tutorial now would be overwhelmed when playing a JRPG from the 2000s or 2010s and realize everything they learned from it is either outdated or not applicable. At the end of the day, this is a medium where you need to grab the bull by the horns lest you develop bad habits that prevent you from enjoying it.
Bokosuka Wars II
Bokosuka Wars II may not be the worst game I’ve ever played, but it is by far one of the most pointless. I can’t think of any reason why a developer would completely ignore the thirty years of growth that took place in the medium between the original Bokosuka Wars and 2016 in favor of giving players an experience that would’ve been considered outdated in 1990 after the original Fire Emblem came out. If what Aether has said about it is true, Steam apparently delisted it from their service, meaning it didn’t even meet their standards. Considering they’ve greenlit games that lack executable files, that should tell you something.
Colossal Cave Adventure
Here it is – the very first game I ever reviewed from the 1970s! It was really cool getting to use a new decade tag, and it’s something I’ll probably get to do again next year. Anyway, it’s not terribly surprising for Colossal Cave Adventure to have aged. It’s the first known work of interactive fiction, so it stands to reason that many people would have come along to improve upon the formula Will Crowther established. It would’ve been significantly worse for the medium had Colossal Cave Adventure continued to be the pinnacle of interactive fiction today. Regardless, it is a difficult sell for anyone used to games with graphics, which is to say pretty much every gamer who has seriously pursued the hobby within the past three decades. It has definitely earned its place in history, though, and I have a lot of respect for it as a result.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Jeez, at this rate, my 250th game review special is going to have bloated sections dedicated to the bad and mediocre works again. I’ll review at least two good games next month, promise. Anyway, I can imagine some fans lamenting that Advanced Warfare’s sole contribution to the gaming sphere is “Press ‘F’ to pay respects”. That would be a legitimate concern if the game were good, but I think that such a moment was able to overshadow everything else speaks to its overall lack of substance. The sheer amount of hype and (retrospectively ill-advised) decision to get Kevin Spacey involved belie a game that you can complete in an afternoon and doesn’t meaningfully challenge the series’ conventions. Really, if you wanted show off what a generic Call of Duty game is, this would be the one to pick. It’s better than Ghosts and doesn’t make as many significant mistakes as Modern Warfare 2, but Advanced Warfare is a real nothing experience that has nothing on the original Modern Warfare.
Top Ten Tuesday: Science Fiction Reads – Sarah over at Hamlets and Hyperspace looks into ten interesting science-fiction novels. Some are fairly obscure while others are revered classics. Either way, it was great seeing what suggestions she had.
Superman: Year One by Frank Miller – Come to think of it, Frank Miller is kind of the comic-book equivalent of Roman Polanski. Obviously, Miller’s worst deed is not nearly as infamous or immoral as Polanski’s, but they are similar in that, as lauded as they are, they have, in practice, spent a majority of their careers proving they haven’t earned the pedestal their diehard fans built for them. One could argue it’s better to make a single end-all masterpiece than several above-average, but not exceptional works, but there is something to be said for consistency. One weakness Miller has shown throughout his career is that he just does not get Superman. At all. Reading through Lashaan’s review of it was therefore very enlightening.
The Persona 3 Retrospective! Part 1: Introduction – Hey, I’m not the only one discussing the Shin Megami Tensei series around here! If you were taken aback by my 18,000-word review of Persona 4, you should check out Aether’s take on Persona 2, which is over 20,000 words long. The best part is that he’s revving up to do the same thing with Persona 3. Good luck!
Once Was Enough Reads – Every so often, you’ll come across a classic work every critic praises that, while not underwhelming, doesn’t leave you wanting to revisit it. I felt that way about The Great Gatsby, which is coincidentally (or not) one of the books beachbookbunny mentions in this article.
Seven great video game tracks (part 3) – The 2010s has proven to be a rather divisive decade for music. While one could make a fairly defensible case that the mainstream music of the 2010s isn’t especially good, I personally feel the problem is only as bad as you want to make it. I’m compelled to note that good music is still being produced and praised by a large audience – it’s just not necessarily pressed onto a record or CD. On that note, continuing from where he left off, AK of Everything is Bad for You takes a look at seven more great video game tracks, highlighting several deep cuts as opposed to the crowd favorites (which are usually good themselves, though).
Indie Variety Hour: Nintendo Switch Edition – Halfway through this decade, the indie scene gained a lot of momentum. I want to say it’s mostly because they dropped the pretentious, off-putting tendencies of pioneering artists such as Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish and started making things that hit a good combination of experimental and accessible. Sadly, with the rise of the developers buckling down and dedicating their time to creating art rather than touching raw nerves, journalists have done a terrible job actually covering these releases. Fortunately, Nintendo has been especially helpful for the indie scene with their Switch console, giving them a platform with some form of quality control that also happens to be affordable, portable, and easy to design for. They’ve basically become the video-game equivalent of A24 in the process – except they actually respect their audience and promote works normal people would want to experience (okay, so they’re not really like A24 at all, really). Anyway, with video game journalists more apt at starting scandals than promoting art, Frostilyte takes a look at a collection of indie games released on the Switch worth looking into.
Still to come:
Well, this is it everyone – the final month of the decade. I have to admit I don’t really have anything special planned, but I do intend to get four game reviews out nonetheless. By the time you read this, I will likely be in the process of putting the finishing touches on my Pokémon X and Y review. I’m also pretty close to finishing a review of the original Mega Man, which will then be followed up with my take on its sequel, which I consider one of the best games of the 1980s. My goal from there is to get my review of Pokémon Sun and Moon finished, though those plans could change.
Here’s hoping the final months of the 2010s goes well for all of us!
Links to my articles:
- Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (2/10)
- Bokosuka Wars II (1/10)
- Colossal Cave Adventure (4/10)
- Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (4/10)