January 2019 in Summary: Into the Thick of Things

Hope all of you are doing well in this new year so far! Now that the Oscars are around the corner, I’ve been running around attempting to see and review all of the nominations. As a result, when it comes to reviewing games, I had to make a lot of last-minute changes. I intend to complete everything I set out to do in short order, though.

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Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018)

Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga is a bouncer who works in New York City, though he soon finds himself seeking new a new job when his nightclub is closed for renovations. Based on the strength of his references, Tony is invited by “Doc” Don Shirley, a highly skilled African-American pianist. The musician is in need of a chauffeur for an eight-week concert tour through the Midwest and Deep South. Though hesitant at first, Tony accepts the offer, intending to return to New York City by Christmas Eve.


It only takes knowledge of the titular Green Book to know what the central theme of this film is. Named after and published by a New York City mailman named Victor Hugo Green, the publication in question was an annual guidebook for African-American roadtrippers. It was intended to show readers where to find motels, restaurants, and fillings stations black people could use. Society was segregated so thoroughly in 1962 when this film is set that many establishments flat-out refused to serve them in any way.

Indeed, even knowing the history of racism in the United States, it is still horribly jarring seeing the conditions in which Don Shirley lodges. This is a man with a remarkable amount of talent, being fluent in eight different languages on top of his prowess on the piano. Such was the extent of his talent that the distinguished composer Igor Stravinsky, once said “his virtuosity is worthy of Gods”. In spite of these remarkable achievements, his audience is shown to only appreciate his talents as far as his onstage performances. The second he steps off the stage, he’s just another black man to them, and he is subject to the full extent of the baggage that comes with it.

In spite of these heavy subjects, it’s not all doom and gloom – far from it. At times, Green Book seems to evoke The Odd Couple in how its two leads interact. The interactions between the boorish, frequently insensitive Tony and the introspective, worldly Don comprise a significant amount of the humor in the film. Indeed, what I particularly enjoyed is how much the characters learn from each other. Don begins the film with many causally racist tendencies, though never to the extent of the Deep South resident depicted. You get the sense that his bouts of insensitivity are more the result of inexperience and being a product of his time than of genuine malice. It is through interacting with Don that his worst habits are eventually excised and he eventually learns some problems cannot be solved by punching them. His greatest moments involve him refusing money at two different points. The first is when he refuses to abandon Don for a job that pays twice as much. The second instance is when he turns down a bribe to convince Don to play at a restaurant at which the musician is not allowed to dine.

Meanwhile, being the consummate professional that he is, Don eventually loosens up and learns to appreciate Tony’s company.  What I like about how they learn from each other is that neither is presented as completely in the right or wrong. Both of them have techniques that work in different situations. Tony’s ability to get people to go along with his ploys gets them out of just as many sticky situations as Don’s silver tongue and connections.

These good touches do come with a rather hefty downside, however. A major plot point in the film is that Don is rejected by both races. White people don’t like him as a result of racism while he fails to understand black culture due to his distaste of popular music. While the former can’t be denied, the real Don Shirley was active in the civil rights movement to the extent that he befriended Martin Luther King Jr. and took part in the historical Selma march. He was also friends with many prominent contemporary black musicians, including Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, and Sarah Vaughn. It is therefore ludicrous that he had never listened to Aretha Franklin or Little Richard as the film suggests.

Many journalists also took issue with the film’s plot, claiming that it was aimed at making audiences feel good. It’s extremely difficult to deny this supposition, as Tony is frequently called upon to rescue Don from many dangerous situations. It especially doesn’t help the film’s case that Don Shirley’s family hated it. While the film suggests the two developed a strong friendship, Mr. Shirley’s relatives believed it to be a strictly employer-employee relationship. Granted, this aspect isn’t verifiable, and friends of Mr. Shirley have said the two were indeed friends, muddying the issue further. Less defensible is that Mr. Shirley’s family was never consulted during the film’s production – they had never even been asked. Mahershala Ali, the actor who played Don Shirley, was especially horrified to learn this, for the producers led to him to believe the man had no living relatives willing to help. Although it’s a given that these fictionalized accounts are not, nor can they ever be, a completely accurate depiction of real-life events, Green Book, to its detriment, ended up taking quite a few unfortunate liberties with reality. It’s difficult to appreciate what a biographical film does well when you can’t depend on it to tell the truth in the most crucial moments.


If I were to sum up Green Book in a single word, it would be “safe”. Like many efforts from 2018, it wasn’t afraid to tackle the touchy subject of racism in the United States. While I give Peter Farrelly a lot of credit for making a film about a serious subject after making his mark with various wacky comedies such as Dumb and Dumber, I feel the main problem is that his effort ultimately doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It does capture just how unconscionable the practice of segregation was, but so do many other period pieces from around the same time such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit or Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Had it not been for its Oscar nomination two months after its premier, I likely wouldn’t have remembered seeing it in the long run.

Indeed, without a unique take on the subject of racism, it can be difficult to appreciate what it does well. As it stands, there is no ground Green Book covers that wasn’t handled better in films such as George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give or Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting. For that matter, I even find myself giving more credit to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. It was an example of a film that went for the gold and wound up with the bronze whereas Green Book seemed to deliberately aim for the latter. This isn’t to say the film is bad; the interactions between Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are very charming to watch, and its heart is in the right place despite its myriad execution issues. Still, without anything substantial to offer in terms of insight and lacking in historical accuracy, it didn’t have much in the way of staying power in the long term.

Final Score: 5/10

A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper, 2018)

Jackson Maine is a celebrated musician who regularly performs at sold-out concerts. He is an alcoholic, but has been able to keep this vice away from the prying eyes of the public. Ally is a young waitress who works with her friend, Ramon. She also moonlights as a singer at a drag bar, showcasing a remarkable songwriting talent. One night, Jackson pays a visit to the drag bar so he may witness Ally’s singing firsthand. Impressed with her talent, they share a drink. Ally reveals she has never considered pursuing a professional career due to being told she has a big nose. Shocked at this revelation, Jackson asks Ally to come to his show. Though hesitant at first, she does take him up on his offer whereupon Ramon convinces her to go out and sing on stage.

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Pokémon Gold and Silver

Introduction

Between 1990 and 1996, a company named Game Freak worked on a game dubbed Pocket Monsters. The company began its life as a fanzine written by Satoshi Tajiri and illustrated by Ken Sugimori. It became a developer when Mr. Tajiri, unsatisfied with the poor quality of the games he discussed, decided to throw his hat in the ring. The project hit many snags along the way, with five employees quitting and Mr. Tajiri taking no salary, instead having live off his father’s income. They received help from members of Ape, Inc., the company that famously produced Mother and its sequel – passion projects of copywriter Shigesato Itoi.

The long development cycle had profound implications for everyone involved. By 1996, Nintendo’s inaugural portable console, the Game Boy, had begun showing its age. While a collection of highly regarded games debuted on the platform, they were eventually seen as watered-down versions of console experiences. This didn’t matter to enthusiasts at the time, for they felt it to be an acceptable tradeoff for being able to bring a game with them at all. It was when gaming entered its fifth console generation that this proposition became less defensible. The experimental 3D titles of the PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64 made the monochromatic Game Boy seem less impressive by the day. Nintendo executives were ready to declare a loss after Pocket Monsters saw its release in 1996 – even after splitting it into two versions. The critical reception seemed to confirm their apprehension, as the few reviews written about it were lukewarm with Famitsu giving it a score of twenty-nine points out of a possible forty. In light of these circumstances, no one could’ve predicted that this relative newcomer would singlehandedly revitalize the Game Boy when Pocket Monsters began selling by the millions.

Despite this success, Game Freak was hesitant to localize Pocket Monsters. Indeed, the idea of releasing it internationally didn’t cross the minds of the development teams. It wasn’t until the then-president of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi, told them “Release this in America!” that localization was unavoidable. However, there was one slight problem: Game Freak didn’t have people to spare to create a port. As such, they found themselves in a precarious position between having to choose between focusing their attention on the sequel or develop an English version. Not wishing to stop the momentum Pocket Monsters had gained, they elected to begin developing the sequel immediately, believing “overseas development is just a dream within a dream”.

Fortunately, one man was willing to step up to the plate: Satoru Iwata, the president of HAL Laboratories. Joined by Teruki Murakawa, the Assistant Department Manager of the plan production headquarters, he began working on a version of Pocket Monsters tailor-made for Western languages upon obtaining the source code. It is highly unusual for a company president to perform extensive analyses of the source code, yet it was through Mr. Iwata’s efforts that Pocket Monsters saw an official release abroad under the name Pokémon. Because there was little faith in the games to find an audience in the United States, it came as a complete shock when they proceeded to become bestsellers there as well. Pokémon was to the late nineties what Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were to mid and late-eighties respectively – a truly inescapable phenomenon that united kids from all walks of life.

With Pokémon having fared well both domestically and abroad, Mr. Tajiri and the rest of Game Freak faced an enormous amount of pressure to succeed. Within a few short years, the games inspired an anime series, multiple manga stories, and a treasure trove of spinoffs. Even so, fans across the world were waiting with baited breath for an official follow-up to the titles that started it all. Nintendo first announced the existence of a sequel in 1997, calling it Pocket Monsters 2: Gold & Silver. However, 1997 passed without a release for these games. It wasn’t until March of 1998 when the company announced a delay, though the games were now called Pocket Monsters: Gold & Silver, having dropped the number from the title.

After a year passed with no official word, Nintendo of Japan’s website updated with new information with a revised release date in June of 1999. Even better, these games would be compatible with the Game Boy Color.

It is largely due to the overnight success of Pokémon that this machine was created. As its name suggests, the Game Boy Color was an upgrade to the original Game Boy, rendering compatible titles in color. It stood out from other handheld consoles in that it was backwards compatible. This allowed the Game Boy Color to launch with a sizable library from the onset.

The release date for Pocket Monsters: Gold & Silver was ultimately delayed again to November 21, 1999. Six months later, the game had sold 6.5 million copies domestically. With the franchise’s popularity transcending cultures, it was a question of when the localized games would make their international debut – not if. The games debuted in Australia and North America in October of 2000 before being released in April of 2001 in Europe. Keeping in line with their predecessors’ naming conventions, they were dubbed Pokémon Gold and Silver in foreign markets. As a contrast to their predecessors’ reception, Pokémon Gold and Silver were critically acclaimed upon release in addition to faring well commercially. Pokémon fever had well and truly set in with Pokémon Stadium being the bestselling console game in North America and Pokémon Gold and Silver dominating the handheld market. Most of the people who played both sets of games insist that they are major improvements over their predecessors. Were these games able to iron out the flaws holding back the original, thus allowing the series to fully grasp its potential?

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Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018)

Thousands of years ago, a meteorite containing vibranium crashed into the continent of Africa. The metal was quickly discovered to be a valuable resource, possessing the ability to leverage thermodynamics in absorbing, storing, and releasing kinetic energy. Realizing its great potential, five tribes warred against each other in an attempt to obtain the material. Through ingesting a heart-shaped herb affected by vibranium, one warrior gained superhuman abilities. Now known as the Black Panther, this warrior united the tribes, excluding the Jabari, to form the nation of Wakanda. In the centuries since, the Wakandans have used the vibranium to pursue countless scientific endeavors all while isolating themselves from the world by posing as a Third World country. In the present day, King T’Chaka of Wakanda has perished in battle, leaving his son, T’Challa, to inherit the Black Panther mantle. Though he intends to maintain the status quo with his reign, he may find this task impossible when a figure from his father’s past emerges from the shadows.

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BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, 2018)

The year is 1972 and Ron Stallworth has been hired as the first black detective in Colorado Springs. He is initially assigned to the records room where he is mistreated by a racist coworker. He quickly requests to be transferred, wishing to become an undercover policeman. His first assignment is to wear a wire and attend a rally where civil rights leader Kwame Ture is to speak. Impressed with his work, Stallworth’s superiors reassign him to the intelligence division. As he reads the paper, he discovers the Ku Klux Klan is seeking to start a new chapter in Colorado Springs. In order to recruit new members, they have kindly listed their number, which Stallworth quickly dials.

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Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

Fear grips a Mexican border town when a time bomb planted in an automobile detonates shortly after entering the United States, killing an influential businessman. Among the people who witnessed the explosion are Miguel “Mike” Vargas, a Mexican drug enforcement officer, and his wife Susie. Police Chief Pete Gould and District Attorney Adair arrive on the scene shortly thereafter. They are then followed by a police captain named Hank Quinlan and his longtime partner, Pete Menzies. Realizing the gravity of a bomb from Mexico exploding on American soil, Vargas volunteers to help investigate the case. In doing so, he discovers a secret that may cause irreparably damage Menzies’s idolization of his superior.

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A Critique of the Critics: Aggregated Assault

When it came to films, 2017 seemed to have little middle ground between the critically beloved gems and the turkeys. Nonetheless, I could consider it one of the medium’s better years within the 2010s if for no other reason than because the critically acclaimed films had little trouble living up to the hype. It was to the point where I would argue nine nominations weren’t enough to do the year justice – especially when one considers quality works such as Good Time and Blade Runner 2049 failed to gain recognition.

My primary means of determining what film to watch would be Rotten Tomatoes. Launched in 1998, Rotten Tomatoes would appear to be a hopeful filmgoer’s best friend. Why wouldn’t it be? It aggregates what critics have to say about the film. If it gets a high score, you can safely bet you’re seeing something special. Meanwhile, if Hollywood extensively markets a film only for it to receive 20% or less, you can bet it’s the product of a particularly cynical cabal of boardroom executives attempting to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It was to the point where Brett Ratner, known for having directed the Rush Hour series and X-Men: The Last Stand, felt it to be the “destruction of [their] business”.

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Luigi’s Mansion

Introduction

The Nintendo 64 marked Nintendo’s official entry in the fifth generation of consoles. The success of one of its launch titles, Super Mario 64, helped jumpstart the medium’s 3D revolution. Though countless developers from id Software to PF Magic had dabbled in 3D for quite some time, Super Mario 64 ended up being ground zero for the leap. What made it such a remarkable effort was that there were no signs of growing pains. The camera could be controlled by the player, yet was incapable of phasing through walls due to being operated by a real character. Mario’s shadow could always be seen underneath him because it helped players gauge where he was on a platform. Levels were made far less linear because players would be naturally inclined to explore the space in which they found themselves. Though these design choices sound prototypical when summed up on paper, future development teams attempting to create three-dimensional experiences would take cues from Super Mario 64 and many of Nintendo’s other pioneering 3D efforts such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in the coming decades.

Despite the acclaim these games received, Nintendo’s success did come at something of a price. Thanks to a combination of Nintendo sticking with ROM cartridges in lieu of adopting the increasingly popular optical disc format and third-party developers having to adhere to their strict policies, they soon found themselves face-to-face against Sony and their PlayStation console. The juggernaut electronics company had entered the console race as a result of the failed partnership between themselves and Nintendo to create a CD-based peripheral to compete with the Sega CD. Because many prominent developers such as Capcom, Konami, and Square began making games exclusively for the PlayStation, Nintendo began rapidly losing their dominance. Even the overwhelming critical success of games such as Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time did little to make up for their loss in market share. At that point, they needed to innovate quickly in order to remain in in the business.

The year 1997 marked the launch of a graphic hardware design company named ArtX. It was staffed by twenty engineers who previously worked at Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) – the company that helped develop the Nintendo 64’s hardware. They were led by Dr. Wei Yen, who had been SGI’s head of Nintendo Operations and outlined the console’s architectural design. ArtX partnered with Nintendo in 1998 in order to craft Nintendo’s entry in the rapidly approaching sixth console generation. Initially codenamed “Flipper”, the project was first announced to the public at a press conference in May of 1999 as “Project Dolphin”. Shortly after this announcement, the company began providing development kits to second-party companies such as Rare and the newly formed Retro Studios.

ArtX was then acquired by ATI in 2000, though the Flipper graphics processor design had been mostly completed. A spokesperson claimed ATI was to become a major supplier to the game console market and that the Dolphin platform would be the “king of the hill in terms of graphics and video performance with 128-bit architecture”. The console was formally announced as the Nintendo GameCube at a Japanese press conference in August of 2000. It was at the Electronic Entertainment Expo of 2001 that the GameCube’s fifteen launch titles were unveiled. Curiously, there appeared not to be a single Mario game in the lineup. However, a closer examination revealed that a game set in the Mario universe would be among the launch titles, but with his brother Luigi in the lead role.

During the Nintendo Space World exposition of 2000, many technological demonstrations were designed to showcase the GameCube’s capabilities. These took the form of full motion video clips – one of which depicted Luigi running from ghosts. After creating the footage, Nintendo decided to turn the demo into a fully realized game. It was shown again at the 2001 Electronic Entertainment Expo alongside the other launch titles and the console itself. This game, Luigi’s Mansion, was to offer an experience the likes of which had never been seen in a Mario title. Though the idea for the game had been conceived as early as 2000, once it became a GameCube project, Luigi was chosen as the protagonist to keep the experience new and original.

The GameCube launched domestically on September 14, 2001 and in North America the following November before receiving European and Australian releases in May of 2002. From a commercial standpoint, Luigi’s Mansion was the most successful GameCube launch title, being the single best-selling game in November of 2001. Nintendo attributed Luigi’s Mansion as the driving force behind the GameCube’s launch sales, for it sold more copies in its opening week than even Super Mario 64 in its own. Critically, Luigi’s Mansion was mostly positive, with critics especially taken aback by its stellar presentation. Despite this, the reception wasn’t quite as warm as that of Super Mario 64. Was Luigi’s first true adventure precisely what the GameCube needed for a successful launch?

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A Question for the Readers #12: “…and Stay Out!!”

You don’t really review games and films on the side without amassing a sizable collection of both. As a rule, I typically keep a work around until I’ve experienced it in full. Once I have done so, I make a decision as to whether or not it’s worthy of remaining in my collection. If I decide it isn’t, that’s when I decide to place it up for sale; no need to keep total disappointment around, after all. Admittedly, I don’t have a cast-iron rule; for video games, it usually needs to get a passing grade for me to not want to sell it. I may sell old editions of a work if a compilation appears, but if I award it a passing grade, you can safely bet it’s still in my collection. Meanwhile, for films, I tend to only keep the ones I awarded (or would award) an 8/10. Every so often, however, I’ll come across a work that, for whatever reason, I just want out of my collection as soon as possible.

To be clear, this anecdote doesn’t concern instances in which I deliberately bought a stinker for the sake of bashing it. As such, you won’t see me mention films such as You’re Next or video games such as Ride to Hell: Retribution or Ninjabread Man. Instead, I’m talking about instances in which I was genuinely looking forward to experiencing a work, yet by the end, I wanted nothing more to do with it. Keep in mind that I don’t consider most of the following works bad per se; if I do, they have more redeeming qualities than the average effort on the tier in which I placed it (or would place it). Granted, the easiest way a work can accomplish this is by having a terrible ending. Despite this, I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but if you’re interested in seeing these films or playing these games, your best bet is to skip to the next subject.

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