From a Mind of Eternal Chaos

A place where I post whatever happens to strike my fancy

Book review #2: School of Sight – Oh say, can you see — September 7, 2017

Book review #2: School of Sight – Oh say, can you see

Sorry about the delay. It wasn’t entirely laziness this time; the first four days of September were pretty jam-packed, and after that, I kind of needed a break. Anyway…

Here’s a book that is no doubt even less well-known than the last one I did. (Though I don’t think I procrastinated quite as much on this review as I did the last one? I don’t remember…) At a local nerd convention back in May this year, there was an indie publishing company called Razorgirl Press, with its entire employee roll of two people sharing a booth at the convention to show off books and answer questions. I got a chance to talk with them, which was nice, and I picked up one of their books, School of Sight, written by Alisha A. Knaff. It’s an urban fantasy novel (as if there are many other genres I read…) about a person who can see supernatural phenomena and thinks she’s going crazy until she meets other people who are the same way, called sibyls, as well as some actual supernatural creatures who are just blending in and living normal lives (such as a half-fairy barista and a vampire teacher). Of course, it’s not too long after that before she runs into some hostile ones, or one of them at least, and then things get dicey and she and her friends—some new, some old—have to stop this evil old pervert from completing a ritual of immortality.

The book is basically fine, I guess. It probably won’t go into the list of favorites, but it ought to at least make it into the list of works of media with sentimental value. A bit like the A Fine Frenzy of books, I guess, though I think she has more going for her. I suppose I should mention that I’m not marking spoilers this time, though I will at least try to avoid anything too big. I figure that if they matter to anyone who is planning on reading these reviews before experiencing what I’m reviewing, then those people can speak up. (Well, more accurately, I figure maybe one or two people at most will actually read any of these anyway, but it amounts to more or less the same thing.) I actually haven’t seen this particular story concept that often, surprisingly, and it seems like a potentially interesting idea. I do think that what the book actually did with it, however, is one minor knock against it; I feel like the story didn’t really live up to the precedent set by the early stage-setting, which actually seems surprisingly common in stories like these. There could have been more supernatural creatures around (the only ones we got to see were vampires, werewolves, fairies [and not even actual fairies, just a half-breed], shapeshifters, and whatever the cat person was supposed to be), or even a minor subplot or something. I also feel like our nameless protagonist got cool new magical powers and then hardly got to use them at all. (Yes, the main character’s name is never mentioned anywhere in the book; the story is written in first-person, and no one ever calls her by her name. Because of that, I shall henceforth be referring to her as “Trogdor”.) Basically, I got the impression that Act 1 was writing checks that Acts 2-5 couldn’t cash. I suppose I can’t criticize the book too much for it, though; as I said, it seems to be an oddly common thing (I’m not sure if it really is that hard to make a story live up to its worldbuilding or if I’m just picky), and I’ve probably been guilty of it myself. Heck, I’m writing a series about a quest for a series of magical artifacts, which is one of the oldest plots in the book when it comes to fantasy novels.

Beyond that, a few of the major plot points seemed to come out of almost complete nowhere. There’s the way that the main characters stop the ritual, for instance. I know that it was technically given a very minor bit of foreshadowing at the beginning of the book when Trogdor mentions why the three of them live together, but come on. I may not be an experienced writer or literary critic, but I know what a contrived coincidence is. The worst part about it is that it didn’t even need to be a plot point in the first place; the author could have just as easily come up with completely different and much simpler parameters for disrupting the ritual, but she decided to be fancy instead for the sake of a moment of tension that lasted all of 10 seconds until the characters basically said “Wow, funny you should mention that…” and got it resolved anyway. The betrayal, on the other hand, wasn’t foreshadowed in the slightest, unless I missed something. Sure, it was a plot twist, but those are difficult to do well and easy to do poorly, and that kind of one tends to render all the characters suspect; while it might not have been the author’s intention, it ends up becoming “okay, so this person’s a villain now…well, if it’s that easy for them, what’s to say no one else will do the same thing?”. Of course, the character in question had to get their moment of deciding to sacrifice themself to stop the real threat and thereby be considered a hero in the end despite being a duplicitous reprobate. Conversely, there was one bit near the beginning that I thought was foreshadowing something that turned out not to bear any fruit; I was expecting Trogdor’s female roommate to turn out to be involved with the supernatural phenomena in some way, but nope. (And on a side note, her name is just as weird as that of the protagonist of the last review I did.)

Now, the characters are another matter. I’ll get the negativity out of the way first this time: I did not like the way the villain was handled. Yes, he’s the bad guy, and the audience is supposed to dislike him, but I feel like his presence was overbearing. I’ll borrow a quote from Codiekitty here, since she puts it appropriately for the context: “He might have been meant to be the kind of slimeball you can’t wait to see get his just deserts, but he was the kind of slimeball who made it hard for me to stay focused on the story.” He’d appear, be gone for a while, then show up again as if the author were saying “don’t forget this guy; he’s evil and still doing bad things, mmmkay?” I’ve already discussed our resident traitor, so there isn’t much else I can say about them. The narrator seemed pretty okay, as did her friends, though I wish the other seers she met at the group had been fleshed out a bit more. I thought they all handled the various situations they found themselves in realistically, their dialogue felt pretty natural, and they were all likable in their own ways.

On a minor note, why is it called “School of Sight” anyway? The “sight” part is obvious, but the story has little to nothing to do with a school. It would make sense if she were going somewhere to learn about her supernatural gifts and how to use them or something, a la Hogwarts, Wizard’s Hall, Bloor’s Academy, the Simonton School for the Magically Gifted, etc., but nope, she goes to a completely mundane college, and all that she learns about her abilities comes from a group unaffiliated with it. Sure, at least one of the faculty members is a disguised supernatural creature, but they’re basically said to be present everywhere.

Summary:

Plot: Decent

As I mentioned before, I feel like the plot is rather formulaic once it gets into full swing, but it’s not bad either.

Characters: Good

It would have been good if we could have spent less time with the antagonist and more with the side characters. Otherwise, they were all right, likable enough as I said.

Setting: Pretty okay (but see comments)

The world that Alisha created here (I can call her Alisha, right, since I met and talked to her casually?) is intriguing, though I wish we’d gotten to see more of it.

Writing: Likable

I noticed that the book had more profanity than I’m used to, though I doubt that was a conscious choice. I think the book did a reasonably good job of balancing the narration, internal monologuing, dialogue, and description.

Positives: Decent characters, decent worldbuilding, and a refreshingly modern take on fantasy.

Negatives: Not enough worldbuilding, an obnoxious antagonist, and insultingly abrupt (and sometimes pointless) plot twists.

Final score: 6

School of Sight is one of those books that I enjoyed while reading it but only afterward realized how many problems I had with it, yet I still liked it in spite of that (and for reasons other than just “it may not be perfect, but it’s the best we have”). I guess one issue I haven’t mentioned is that the other issues might never get resolved in a sequel; while the book really seems like the kind of story that has enough unexplored material for a sequel, the way it ended might make that difficult, at least if Alisha kept the same narrator. Still, though, I’d say it’s worth a read for any urban fantasy fans out there.

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Movie review #3: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – A menagerie of magical monsters — May 31, 2017

Movie review #3: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – A menagerie of magical monsters

Well, this review is about a month late, but I recently watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which, if you don’t know, is a spin-off of the ever-popular and ever-overrated Harry Potter series. Coming in, I really didn’t know what to expect other than that there would be fantastic beasts and, presumably, at least one person finding them in some capacity. I had read the book, but that actually reveals surprisingly little about the movie. There were really only two things I had already known about or relating to the movie prior to watching it: that Alison Sudol was in it, and that the American English word for Muggle is apparently “No-Maj”. Seriously…No-Maj. Let me just take a moment to emphasize that that term not only sounds utterly ridiculous but doesn’t even work in American English phonology because of the way we handle unstressed vowels, as a friend of mine pointed out. (Yes, I hang out with people who are familiar with phonetics and how they are used in certain languages…you mean you don’t? Maybe you need to find better friends.) Furthermore, even if we do accept “No-Maj” as an acceptable bend of phonological constraints and a permissible localism, they also screwed it up in another way in at least one place in the movie where it’s pluralized with just an “s” (i.e., “No-Majs”) instead of “-es” as one normally does when pluralizing English words ending in a “j” sound. It doesn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things, I guess, since it probably won’t come up much; if my life is ever reduced to such a pitiable existence that I decide to write Harry Potter fanfiction in lieu of original stories and decide to write one set in the US, I could probably get away with pretending that that detail doesn’t exist. They’ll always be “Muggles” to me anyway, and I’m not sure J. K. Rowling actually knows how Americans talk. Then again, I guess after the past couple years, should I happen to leave the country for any reason, I’ll be lucky to convince anyone from anywhere else that we are even capable of speaking in complete, coherent sentences.

Anyway…the movie. (Sentence fragments.) First of all, I should mention that there will be spoilers, so if that bothers you, it would be a good idea to stop here. Second, I should also mention that it is the same as the book basically in name only; the only commonality between them is that there are magical creatures involved. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, considering that the book was written in the style of what was basically an in-universe reference guide, so it would have been hard to create a completely verbatim adaptation of the original version for the same reason that it would be hard to make a movie out of a volume of the encyclopedia. With this addition of an actual plot, we follow Newt Scamander (the writer of the original book within the Harry Potter universe) as he makes a trip from the UK to the US with a suitcase full of magical creatures of many kinds. Yes, a suitcase that acts as an entire nature preserve in its own right. It’s magic, okay? Naturally, once he gets to New York City (it’s always New York City, at least when it’s not a nameless small town), some of the creatures escape into the city, mainly as a result of accidentally switching suitcases with a local aspiring baker, and he has to track them down with the help of him, an agent originally sent to investigate the trouble, and her flirtatious sister. Meanwhile, there’s some sort of invisible monster that keeps destroying things that has nothing to do with Newt, which they also have to figure out about and stop; there is a group of people opposed to witchcraft who actually aren’t aware of the magical world and don’t get in the way that much but mostly just lurk in the background acting like a bunch of abusive fundamentalists (which certainly doesn’t resemble anything we’ve encountered in reality…); and there’s a plot point about the rise of a dark wizard named Grindelwald (who was mentioned in the main Harry Potter series once or twice early on and later in the last book) that turns out to be important later.

The characters were decent enough, I guess. Newt, Tina, and Jacob were all pretty likable (at least, once Tina warmed up a bit). Queenie is one of those character archetypes that tend to give me a bad first impression, but I warmed up to her as the movie progressed. I might be biased because the thing I found the most noteworthy about her was being played by Alison Sudol, who has some sentimental value for me because she’s one of the few famous people whom I’ve actually met in person. I may even have a bit of a celebrity squish on her (a squish is a platonic crush, for anyone who doesn’t know). She also probably has the nicest smile of anyone I know of in the entertainment industry (though I can think of one acquaintance from school who could probably stand on equal footing with her in that respect).

The supporting cast did seem a bit weaker, though, especially in terms of accomplishments. The Magical Congress was exactly as competent as one would expect from people in positions of power in these stories, which is to say that if they were all locked in a cryogenic chamber on the surface of Mars, they would actually be more useful than they were as it stands, because then at least they’d be out of the way instead of actively obstructing our intrepid protagonists at every opportunity. That president lady in particular (Seraphina Picquery, her name was) honestly seemed like the most bloodthirsty character in the movie overall. For that matter, that execution method was actually kind of creepy…I mean, extracting a person’s memory from the past and showing it to them to make them want to kill themselves…really, MACUSA? Really? I guess it’s at least a more peaceful death than a lot of things would be, but it’s still very unsettling. It really does not help that they were willing to execute the main characters for what seemed like very minor crimes in comparison to the severity of the punishment, and without even hearing their side of the story either. (Also, shouldn’t there be international laws protecting a person from suffering such a punishment by another country’s government?) And since Newt is presumably the only one who knows enough about the magical creatures to be able to safely capture them all…yeah, I see no possible way that getting rid of him could have ended poorly. Nope. Had the execution actually gone through, any continued magical beast-induced loss of property or life afterward would have been 100% their fault.

They also never gave the heroes any recompense for the way they treated them. (Tina’s promotion doesn’t really count.) No transfer of power, no new helpful organizations, not so much as a “sorry we tried to freaking murder you“. No, even when the ostensible climax comes, they get in one last “screw you” moment when the protagonists are trying to talk the guy with the crazed shadow spirit thing (the Obscurus) down, and then they come in and just blast him to bits instead, rendering Credence’s entire plotline essentially moot (aside from making a lot of building insurance companies very displeased, I suppose). Honestly, I hated Seraphina more than the actual villain of the movie. He might have been genuinely evil, and I’m sure he’ll be important in the sequels, but he really only showed up for the final battle (unmasked, anyway), while she was present throughout the story and caused far more actual harm to the heroes despite it being completely in her power to actually help them in a way that would benefit everyone. (On a side note, I find it hard to believe that they’d have a black woman as a political leader in the 1920s, and I’m not being racist or sexist, just emphasizing that people in general were racist and sexist in those days. Also homophobic, transphobic, ableist, religiously oppressive, culturally insensitive, and if there are any other mainstream forms of xenophobia, they probably had those going on too. It would be one thing if the wizards and witches had been shown to be more open-minded than non-magical folk, but both the movie and the books showed that they quite clearly aren’t.) Really, the entire magical government seemed to be composed of idiots (again, this is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to any real people living or dead is entirely coincidental); while they did actually show some sense at the very end of the movie, it did little to make up for them acting like utter blockheads for the first 96% of it. The whole “person in position of power doesn’t believe unlikely warning until it’s too late/things have become much worse” is a tired trope for sure; I get that stories usually need to have some form of conflict and drama, and having a high-rank person exert their authority to solve things early would undermine the plot structure, but…come on, writers, you can still have meaningful conflict without needing to make every authority figure have their head so far up their butt that they could see out their bellybutton if they wore X-ray glasses.

While we’re still on the subject of characters, there’s one other point I’d like to address: Whatever happened to the little girl? The one who was hiding the wand under her bed. I get that she was being oppressed by the crazy cultist woman, and when she tried to go too far, the Obscurus killed her, but then…that was it. She never showed up at all after that. Did she ever get reintroduced into society? Was she actually a witch? Did she ever find out what happened to Credence? I suppose it’s one plot thread that may or may not be continued in the sequels.

Summary:

Plot: Okay

This is one of those movies where I feel like one watches it more for the scene-by-scene moments than for the overarching storyline. When taken as a whole, it actually feels a bit disconnected (see below).

Characters: Good to forgettable

I thought the main characters, at least, were good. They each had their own distinct quirks, mannerisms, and interests; they were likable; and their interaction felt pretty natural. I’ve already grumbled at length about the government people. (And in the grand scheme of things, they weren’t even that bad; the Harry Potter series loves its jerks and its psychos, so characters who are merely dangerously incompetent are barely a blip on the radar.) The gangster goblin was basically just a one-scene slimeball. There actually isn’t much to say about the other side characters; none of them got enough screen time for us to learn much about them, with the possible exceptions of Credence, the guy who turned out to be the bad guy in disguise, and maybe the leader of the anti-witchcraft group. And even then, we only really found out one main thing about them (“tormented soul lashing out at everything”, “do racist villainous things”, and “rawr, I R wicked fundie”, respectively).

Effects: Good

I think the special effects and CGI here deserve a mention. A lot of fantasy movies that contain magical creatures don’t make them look very good (including the main-series Harry Potter movies…ever seen the merpeople in Goblet of Fire? One of the few things I remember about that movie is how awful those looked…), but they actually did a pretty decent job with this one. The creatures, for the most part, looked relatively realistic. The magic spells and such weren’t half bad either, though I’ll admit the only notable one of those that I can remember off the top of my head is when Queenie assembles a pastry in mid-air.

Dialogue: Good

Again, I can’t immediately recall any particularly noteworthy conversations, but the dialogue at least seemed natural? And as I said before, it worked all right with the character interaction.

Positives: Likable main characters, pretty decent CGI/special effects, and a good balance of adventure, downtime, and worldbuilding, if you ask me.

Negatives: I feel like this movie’s biggest problem was trying to juggle too many plotlines. At the very least, there was the main one with Newt trying to recapture the escaped magical creatures, which tied into Tina’s and Jacob’s worlds (Tina because of her history in magical law enforcement, Jacob because of a chance meeting that ended up dragging him into trouble); there was the underlying threat of Grindelwald; there was the whole thing with the New Salem Philanthropic Society and the little girl; and there was the Obscurial, which also kind of ties into both Grindelwald’s story and the society’s. I guess they could certainly have done a worse job connecting them all, though. Also, the American English word for “Muggle” is freaking “No-Maj”.

Final score: 6

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a pretty decent movie. It had some good moments and some not-so-good ones, and it brought in some interesting new developments as well as some that I could do without (such as the fact that the American English word for “Muggle” is “No-Maj”), but I enjoyed it overall. From what I’ve heard, they’re actually planning as many as four sequels to it, which seems weird to me, and I’m worried that the sequels will push all the magical creatures to the side in favor of more of Grindelwald’s story. Still, though, I actually liked this movie substantially more than the actual Harry Potter movies, for what it’s worth.

The List of Limbo #1: Super Mario 64 – The standard for 3D platformers (unfortunately) — November 2, 2016

The List of Limbo #1: Super Mario 64 – The standard for 3D platformers (unfortunately)

Here is something a bit new. While my rating scale for normal reviews has all possible permutations for level of quality by my personal opinion, I will admit that most of my reviews will probably be for things that I at least somewhat liked (or if I didn’t like them, if they at least went by quickly enough that I could put up with them). More importantly, I only ever review things that I’ve actually finished; I feel that if I don’t get all the way through something, I can’t really give a fair assessment of it. Now, what does that have to do with this “List of Limbo”? Quite simply, the List of Limbo is basically reviews for things that I might never do a real review of because I may never actually finish them for whatever reason, because of personal bias or preference against the genre, not enjoying it enough to want to continue, running into a roadblock, or whatever else. I even have a separate rating scale for the List of Limbo, as seen on the info page below the regular rating system, for how likely I am to ever return to that item in the future and do a proper review of it.

The first work of media that I’ll be looking at for this is Super Mario 64. It may be a timeless classic in a lot of people’s minds, but if it’s on this list, I clearly don’t agree. I warned you all that when it came time for me to review things, I might be stomping on some childhood memories along the way, but you know what they say about omelets, so…let the childhood stomping begin.

Super Mario 64, if you didn’t know, is the first 3D Mario game and a launch game for the Nintendo 64. For a lot of people, it is probably the game that codified the 3D platformer genre. This time around, I guess Bowser’s trapped all the Toads in paintings or something in his perpetual quest to give a princess both PTSD and Stockholm syndrome, and we as Mario must enter the worlds depicted in those to retrieve special stars and use those stars to return things to relative normalcy. There are 15 main levels in the game, each with 7 stars to collect, and there are a few stars elsewhere as well for a total of 120 stars. Each level needs a certain number of stars to reach by way of locked doors in the castle.

As far as the gameplay is concerned, I’ve been saying for a while that 3D platformers might be the only genre easier to screw up than RPGs, and Super Mario 64 is a pretty good example of that. Given that it was one of the first 3D platformers, it stands to reason that it would have some rough spots. The camera is pretty bad, for one; it has a marked tendency to position itself at awkward angles, and despite supposedly having a manual control option (I’ve actually heard that the Nintendo 64 controller was designed for Super Mario 64, the C buttons being one reason), messing with the camera using the C buttons doesn’t seem to work very well. And speaking of the controller, the controls in this game are actually kind of annoying. I’d imagine most people have probably heard about how janky the Nintendo 64’s controller is by now, but I will at least reiterate how crappy the analog stick is, and I’m not sure why this game even needed analog control in the first place. Really, I’m not sure why analog control in general is supposed to be so great; in every game I’ve ever played that had it, I could only think how much more accurate it would have been with a separate button, rather than having a control stick that you’ll inevitably end up pushing a micrometer too far in a particular direction, causing your character to run too fast right into an obstacle. Things like “use the analog stick to tiptoe so you won’t wake up the sleeping Piranha Plant” seem just as shoehorned-in to me as the Wii’s infamous motion controls. The presence or lack of good controls can really make or break a video game, and this one definitely tends to lean more toward the “break” side. Sure, it added new moves such as the triple jump and wall jump, but I felt like the basic controls just weren’t as accurate as they should have been, especially when swimming.

Both of those pretty significant problems, however, are still less important than the thing that really ruined this game for me: the gameplay. The levels, from what I played before I gave up on the game, are small and not generally organized or paced very well, and there are only 15 of them in the entire game. One might assume that that is rectified by the star system, but the levels really don’t change much. Whichever star you’re going for, you’re still playing basically the same level, even if you’re not taking the exact same path through it. The end effect of this is that it feels like rather than playing up to 105 short stages’ worth of content, you’re just doing the same levels over and over again, and at least some of the repetition is mandatory, since you need at least 70 stars to defeat Bowser. I’m not sure who thought this was a good idea or an enjoyable way to play a game. It’s as if worlds 3 to 8 in the original Super Mario Bros. were retreads of all the levels in the first two worlds, with the only differences being that some of the levels had a few blocks, platforms, or enemies added or removed. I guess one reason for doing this could have been to save cartridge space, but considering Super Mario 64 doesn’t come anywhere near maxing out the available space inside a Nintendo 64 cartridge (the biggest games ever made for the system used 64 MB cartridges, while this game is only 8 MB), that excuse only really flies inasmuch as it was a launch game and they probably hadn’t tapped into the potential yet, similar to how Super Mario World was squeezed into a 512 KB cartridge when later SNES games such as Donkey Kong Country quite easily went up to 4 MB (in fact, the ratio is the same).

One other thing that tends to turn me off Super Mario 64, though it isn’t the game’s fault, is its fanbase. Poor game-modding communities aside, I hardly ever hear anyone who likes Super Mario 64 describe it as less than not only the best 3D Mario game but the only 3D Mario game worth playing, or even the one that all other 3D Mario games’ design should be based on. There’s always some qualifier about, for instance, Super Mario 3D Land and World not actually being 3D games (looks like somebody needs to look up what “3D” means) or being objectively inferior to Super Mario 64 (keep that dictionary around to look up what an opinion is while you’re at it), or all 3D Mario games needing to be open-world and have star collecting to be good, or some other garbage. It’s fine to like the game even if I personally don’t, but it’s not fine to tout it as the be-all, end-all approach to 3D Mario games and disparage anyone who doesn’t agree.

Summary:

Problems: The way the levels are set up makes the game extremely repetitive, the camera is questionable at best, and the controls could have used some touching up.
Things that were okay: The music is decent enough.
Circle of limbo rating: 3

I really tried to like Super Mario 64, but I think I’ve given it enough chances; I wasn’t really having fun with it, and I doubt I’d ever have much incentive to give it another try. The controls are screwy, the camera is even screwier, the levels frankly feel like a whole lot of blandness and repetition…and is it just me, or is a good portion of this game’s fanbase absolutely insufferable by Mario game standards? Super Mario 64 might have been impressive in 1996, but in 2016, not so much. There are some games from that era that have aged like fine wine (Super Mario RPG, Yoshi’s Island, the Donkey Kong Country trilogy, and possibly the Mega Man games), but Super Mario 64 aged about as well as a bowl of potato salad in Death Valley. There are good 3D platformers out there, but this, as far as I’m concerned, is not one of them.

Movie review #2: Tangled – A story of lost hairs — September 30, 2016

Movie review #2: Tangled – A story of lost hairs

Well, we started the month with a video review, and it looks like we’re ending it the same way. I finally watched Tangled all the way through recently, so that’s what we’re looking at this time around. If you didn’t know, it’s more or less a retelling of Rapunzel with a lot of details and side plot added. There’s a flower that grants eternal youth and life, a nasty old woman hides it, its powers end up in the hair of the new princess, the woman raises the princess as her own daughter confined in a tower, she decides to leave the tower one day, shenanigans and epiphany ensue. That sums it up vaguely but concisely. The rescuer is a wisecracking thief on the run, and Rapunzel is a spirited 18-year-old (for most of the movie) armed with a frying pan. There will be unmarked spoilers this time, since I’m not really sure how else to explain certain things.

I liked the movie overall. I’m not sure I’d put it on my “all-time favorites, must watch” list, but it’s at least probably in the highest quadrant, and Rapunzel is probably one of the best Disney princesses. On a side note, there’s been a minor argument in my family about whether Tangled or Frozen is a better movie, and…I’m not sure, really. I guess I’ll get to that more if I ever review Frozen, which is likely. In any case, though, it was an interesting adventure, not to mention pretty, a worthy addition to the franchise. Also, I actually found Mother Gothel to be one of the creepiest villains in a Disney cartoon show. She didn’t even need any magic to make Rapunzel do what she wanted (in fact, there actually isn’t any magic in this other than Rapunzel’s fabulous hair); she nearly ruined the poor girl’s life with nothing but manipulation, which is perfectly possible in real life. Yikes.

Come to think of it, though…how exactly does a “drop of sunlight” fall to the ground and turn into a healing flower anyway? If it’s a gift from some higher power, why the heck isn’t it better protected? What happened to the flower after the queen used it anyway? Surely she didn’t need to use the whole thing and/or kill it? Why didn’t Eugene cut Rapunzel’s hair after she healed him with it? And why did Rapunzel need to make and keep that agreement anyway? Just once, I’d like to see the hero agree to that kind of “offer you can’t refuse”, then stab the villain in the back (possibly literally) as soon as they let their guard down. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the kind of person who very much values honesty and keeping one’s word, but being under duress invalidates any sort of honor or responsibility in that regard. In fact, Rapunzel could have just cut her hair at any time once she found out what her emotional abuser was really up to, maybe hiding the fact that she knew if necessary. Inside or outside the tower, all she needs is a pair of scissors and the wretched old hag is irrevocably screwed. As an aside, did anyone else find the scene where they’re trapped in the cave much more unsettling than it was probably meant to be? Maybe I’m just a bit claustrophobic when it comes to certain things, but…yeesh.

Summary:

Plot: Fine

I guess if nothing else, it’s noteworthy that they managed to take one of the shorter, simpler fairytales and expand it into a full-length movie without really padding anything.

Characters: Fine

Rapunzel was pretty decent, a more modern princess who can take care of herself and doesn’t just have to wait to be rescued. Eugene was likable enough, if a bit self-centered at first. (Though I have to wonder what crimes he committed that were bad enough to warrant execution…maybe it’s just because it’s semi-medieval times and punishments were harsher back then?) The side characters were cute, even if they weren’t onscreen enough to have that much to them. The non-speaking animals were good for a laugh, particularly Maximus (though before seeing the movie, I’d thought he was Eugene’s horse). I will say, though, that while Mother Gothel was a pretty chilling villain, she was actually a fairly flat character. She not only wasn’t at least entertaining like some Disney villains, she didn’t really have a personality or motivation beyond “I want to live and be young forever and will use any means necessary to do so, including ruining an innocent girl’s life, because I’m a manipulative butthole who doesn’t care for anyone other than myself in the slightest”. You really have to wonder with these death-cheating bad guys what exactly they’re planning on doing with all that extra lifespan (presumably just sitting on their tuchis thinking “ha ha, I’m not dead yet, screw you, Grim Reaper” a lot).

Effects: Existent

Do cartoons even have special effects? Well, I guess the art was pretty, quite well-done.

Dialogue: Good

The dialogue felt pretty natural. I can think of plenty of moments of charm and humor, but not really any that made me cringe or sigh.

Positives: I certainly can’t complain about either the lovely art and animation or the strong female lead protagonist. We need more independent, determined, strong-willed princesses in stories. Though I guess Disney’s been doing pretty okay with that lately, after not only Rapunzel but also Tiana, Merida, Anna, and Elsa. From what I’ve seen so far, Moana looks to be going in the same direction.

Negatives: Well, I’ve already mentioned not finding the antagonist an interesting or compelling character, so I shan’t repeat myself on that note. I guess one other minor knock against this is that I didn’t find the soundtrack particularly memorable. It wasn’t bad, but if we’re comparing it to Frozen, I can think of plenty of songs from that other than the (in)famous “Let it Go” that I still remember well after seeing the movie, whereas here, the only song I can even recall, much less sing any of, is the one from the “I have a dream” scene. (Well, no, I guess I also remember what “Mother Knows Best” sounds like, but that’s not what I’d call a great song or anything.)

Final score: 6

Tangled is a good movie, both in its own right and as part of the larger Disney series. I’m not really sure what about it prevents me from feeling like rating it higher, but hey, I enjoyed it.

Movie review #1: Spy Kids – They’re going to save the world — September 3, 2016

Movie review #1: Spy Kids – They’re going to save the world

Well, my brother just watched this movie the other day, I hadn’t seen it in a while, and I definitely remember liking it, so I figured it would be a pretty decent choice for my first movie review. In it, Carmen and Juni Cortez are two kids whose parents are international spies, which they only find out when their enemies break in and kidnap them and another secret agent has to explain the situation quickly and get the kids to safety before they get kidnapped as well. What follows is a combination of chases, wacky hijinks, action, adventure, drama, and intrigue, as they must escape the enemy agents and their robotic minions, figure out how to work as spies themselves with their new fancy gadgets, and make some unlikely allies along the way.

And…it works. I mean, it’s not some intricate, transcendentalist work of art or something like that, but as a family action-adventure movie with a little sci-fi thrown in, it’s really pretty decent. (Obviously, real espionage is about a hundred times more dangerous and painful than anything that happens in this movie, but hey, having Carmen and Juni get tortured for information or be forced to assassinate people would take away the fun of the movie, no?) I like the interesting gadgets and machines, the background setting, the quirky side characters…Spy Kids is out to entertain, and it certainly does that. While spy movies have probably been done quite a bit by this time (admittedly, the movie has been out since 2001), it had enough interesting twists on it—particularly anything involved with Floop—to feel unique and interesting. It also seems to divide its time between action sequences, worldbuilding, and character interaction pretty well. Even the kidnapped parents got some good scenes, such as the banquet with Floop and the (failed) escape attempt down the halls. The ending was nicely done, too.

Summary:

Plot: Fine

I guess one noteworthy thing about the plot of this movie is that there’s not really one single overarching goal that the protagonists are after. There is one main one, which is to get their parents back, but along the way, there are lots of “steps” to complete first.

Characters: Decent

While the two main characters weren’t that noteworthy, I think the side characters are what really made it work (again, particularly anyone involved with Floop). Though I swear I don’t remember Carmen being so…abrasive when I watched it as a kid…

Effects: Good

I don’t generally pay attention to special effects much, but they did a good job making the sci-fi-esque technology (the spy gadgets, the robots, the virtual reality sequences) look believable. Except maybe the “instant food”; that one stretched my suspension of disbelief a bit.

Dialogue: Fine

The dialogue was generally pretty decent, though I can’t immediately think of any particularly good lines (though “You’re not that strong, Juni…” might be at least marginally quotable).

Positives: Probably the best thing about this movie is that it’s interesting and mature enough for an adult to watch, yet family-friendly enough to show to kids without really needing to worry (unless they’re pretty little). I can’t think of a lot of shows that I could say that about, especially live-action ones.

Negatives: Remember what I mentioned about Carmen’s personality? Yeah, I’m going to reiterate that. If I remember correctly, she does get better in the sequels, as well as late into this one, but…honestly, she spends an awful lot of the movie acting like kind of a jerk to her brother for no particular reason. I’m also not sure why the heck either of them thought it was a good idea to try melee-attacking the robots after the first failed attempt. After Juni nearly broke his hand trying to punch them, Carmen headconking one could only grant me a reaction of “…You idiot.” (And doing that even to a human isn’t exactly fun…) “You’re not that strong, Juni” indeed. On a related note, I’m pretty sure that you can’t put someone on a merry-go-round and then spin it that fast without either the person or the playground equipment—or both—suffering some significant harm.

Final score: 7

Spy Kids is a pretty good movie for family entertainment, I’d say. Some people might fancy themselves too sophisticated or highbrow for this kind of thing, but then, I could say that about quite a few works of media that are less well-done and less mature than this was. In fact, this actually used to be one of my favorite movies as a kid, along with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as I recall. I would highly recommend it. (Now, excuse me while I sing the theme song from the credits…)

Book review #1: Wildwood – The rawest forest — May 29, 2016

Book review #1: Wildwood – The rawest forest

I don’t read fiction much, at least not anymore. Oh, I read plenty of it when I was younger; I was one of those kids who would routinely check out 30+ books from the library at a time. And I would certainly like to read more of it these days. But I have been burned far too many times by authors, so now every book that doesn’t have a Dewey Decimal associated with it—and probably some that do—I regard with suspicion, guilty until proven innocent. Every now and then, however, I find something that is at least worth trying, which was the case with Wildwood, recommended to me by a friend. (Back in February, no less, and I didn’t finish it until today. I’m not a slow reader; it only took me three sittings to read, and I could have finished it in one if I’d been a bit more invested in the story and not had things to interrupt it. Just be glad I didn’t procrastinate on this review as much as I did on reading the book.) And I guess there might be some minor unmarked spoilers here, but I tried to at least mark the major ones.

So…Wildwood. It’s a book primarily about a girl. While she is at the park with her baby brother, he gets kidnapped by crows (it makes sense in context) and taken deep into a nearby forest known by the locals as The Impassable Forest. She goes into there to rescue him, one of her classmates follows her, and they get split up, only to find that the forest is populated not only by humans but also talking animals, who live together in relative harmony. From there, they meet a villain who pretends to be friendly, wacky hijinks ensue (at least, if by “wacky hijinks” you mean “a bunch of battles where many unnamed characters die”), they rescue the girl’s brother from being used for a gruesome, destructive ritual by the resident antagonist, and everything turns out more or less fine from there. I’ll spare you the details in this case.

Now that you know the basic plot, we’ll discuss my thoughts. First of all, who names their kid “Prue”? Is that even a real first name? I guess it could be short for “Prudence”, but that’s not a lot better. Beyond that, the forest formerly known as the Impassable Wood is a pretty decent fantasy world, I guess, even if not much in the way of actual magic ever showed up in the book. Actually, for all that the author (Colin Meloy) tried to establish this different world, I feel like he didn’t really spend as much time on the worldbuilding as he could have. Conversely, he spent too much time on the numerous battles between factions, if you ask me. I feel like after the first few chapters, there weren’t enough breaks between scenes where no one had to fight anyone, escape from confinement, or sneak around but could just kind of relax and take it all in. And on that note, assuming that the characters’ ages are supposed to correspond roughly to the reader’s, this book seems awfully violent for something aimed at the pre-teen crowd. They never really go into the implications of having hundreds of nameless soldiers die, beyond explicitly mentioning that at least some of them had families. It sucks to be the spouse or child of any of those coyotes, bandits, farmers, or birds. Meanwhile, I might have liked to know more about what happened during the coup at the end, which barely got three pages’ worth of description to it. I also feel like Prue and Curtis didn’t spend enough time being present simultaneously; they were together at the beginning and the end but separated for most of the book.

Also, I totally called the main bad guy being evil despite her initial amiable countenance. I’ve read too many fantasy novels to trust a character in that situation, the Narnia books in particular (or at least The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). Though I’ll admit she kind of had a point about “keeping her end of the bargain”, even if she did have some Rumpelstiltskin-esque ulterior motives (not to mention being an omnicidal psychopath). And that in turn brings up the question of why Prue’s parents didn’t just adopt a child instead of making that kind of deal with someone that suspicious. Speaking of families, that thing Curtis did at the end of the book was a real jerk move. I can understand leaving the Outside and joining the bandits for good if his life in the mundane world had been miserable, but unless I forgot something, there’s nothing in the book to suggest that it was, meaning that he left his parents and at least one sibling thinking that he’d died for no real reason. What the heck, dude?! For that matter, even if the bandits are the honorable sort, they’re still bandits and they still rob people, and maybe instead of joining them, he should have, I don’t know, convinced them to get actual jobs or something. This all is compounded by the fact that he’s freaking 12. I know I wasn’t mature enough for something like that when I was 12 years old, nor was anyone I knew when they were that age. But then, I could say the same for Prue and going to a park in the city essentially alone to take care of a baby. And whatever happened to the mailman by the end of the book? He pretty much disappeared by the time the story was starting to slope up to the climax. We never found out why Curtis was a half-blood either.

Summary:

Plot: Decent

I feel like the ratio of action to adventure to exploration to worldbuilding could have been better. Otherwise, it wasn’t bad.

Characters: Passable

Both of the protagonists are…a bit on the flat side, to be honest, and I don’t mean the story suggests they have latent anorexic tendencies. Prue wants to find her brother, but about the only other thing we find out about her is that she likes birds and drawing, and her personality doesn’t really stand out from any other young fantasy novel protagonist I could think of. Curtis has even less going for him in that regard. At least neither of them annoyed me.

Setting: Good

Mysterious, dangerous forest separated into three parts, where humans live alongside talking animals? Not a bad setting for a fantasy story at all, but I do feel like it’s been done before, and it’s probably been done better (the aforementioned Narnia comes to mind). And this is just me, but I think it would have been improved by adding some mythological creatures such as dragons, griffins, centaurs, etc. Just sayin’.

Writing: Good

The author seemed to do a decent job with his descriptions and imagery, and I have no real complaints about any of the dialogue. *shrug*

Positives: Both the world and the writing were decent enough.

Negatives: See my comments about there being too many battle scenes relative to the amount of world building and about Curtis’s role at the end. Also, this story just didn’t seem like it really needed 541 pages to be told. I’m not sure what would be compressed or cut out, but I feel like not that many things actually happened relative to its length.

Final score: 5

Despite some of the problems I had with this book, I guess I enjoyed it overall. It won’t go down in my list of eternal favorites or anything, but it didn’t make me want to punch the author in the face either. I’d say it’s worth reading. (On a few postscript side notes, I noticed the font in this book is the same one used in The Seventh Tower series, though I couldn’t tell you what it’s called. And this is one of those books with pages that are deliberately rough and uneven on the right side, so it was a bit of a challenge to turn the pages on occasion.)

Video game review #1: Mega Man X – Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) — May 27, 2016

Video game review #1: Mega Man X – Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start)

Well, I’m finally reviewing something for the first time. And since I recently replayed the original Mega Man X on my SNES, I figured why not start with that? (And for anyone confused about my rating system, please see the info page for a breakdown of possible scores.)

Mega Man X, if you didn’t know, is the first of a series that is the successor to the Mega Man series that began on the NES (often referred to as “Mega Man Classic”), released in late 1993 in Japan, early 1994 in America, and mid-1994 in Europe. They are sidescrolling action games, though I wouldn’t quite call them platformers (the classic series, I would, though). They take a lot of ideas from the classic series, though the X series tends to give you noticeably more powerups and different moves, and the plot is a good deal more angsty. The robotic protagonist, known as “X”, is tasked with destroying all the robots that have gone rogue, including our local stage bosses (known as “Mavericks”, though I think the term might also have been used to apply to normal enemies?) and the main villain, Sigma, who was actually one of the good guys before being infected by a virus that turned him evil. Not that the game tells you this. After finishing the introductory stage, or “intro stage”, you are taken to a screen where you may select any one of 8 possible stages. You can’t progress to the end of the game without beating all 8 of these, but you can do them in any order, which is a theme common to Mega Man games in general. Another common theme is that beating a stage gives you a special weapon based on the stage boss, either their powers or one of their attacks (for instance, you get Fire Wave from Flame Mammoth and Storm Tornado from Storm Eagle), and each of these weapons does extra damage to one of the other bosses. Upon beating all 8 main stages, you can progress to the fortress, which consists of 4 stages (in this case) and culminates in a battle with Sigma. This is the general formula for the Mega Man X series, with games occasionally varying it up a bit by, for instance, having more or fewer fortress stages, or ways to skip some of the main 8.

mmximg1

OMG NONLINEARITY!!1!

Now, what does all this mean for this particular game? Well, since it is the first, it maybe isn’t quite as fine-tuned in some areas as the later games; for instance, in this game, there is an upgrade that allows you to dash, but every other game in the series lets you do that from the start anyway, and since not being able to dash can make some parts of the game much more difficult, it pretty much goes without saying that anyone who knows about this will want to do the stage that contains that powerup first. It helps that the stage in question also has probably the easiest boss to defeat. I also don’t find the difficulty curve in this one to be very even; while certain stages out of the main 8 being far harder or easier than others is nothing new (it’s a phenomenon that has existed since the very first Mega Man game and continues to show up to this day…or at least, to the most recent time when Mega Man games were actually being made *shakes fist at Capcom*), the fortress stages in this one, in my opinion, are some of the most annoying in the series, especially the first one. They might not be quite as bad as, say, Mega Man X6’s, but they’re definitely up there, especially considering the main 8 stages are generally on the easy side.

mmximg2

Moving platforms over a bottomless pit with homing flying enemies? Yeah, that’s never made anyone tear their hair out before…

Also, the final boss is crap. The first two forms are easy once you know how to deal with them, but the third form is just obnoxious, not fun no matter how good or bad you are at dodging its attacks. I will admit, however, that final bosses have never been a strong point of Mega Man games, either in the X or classic series. Overall, while Mega Man X does suffer a bit from being the first in a series, it isn’t nearly as bad in that regard as its predecessor, and it’s still a pretty good game, though not my favorite in the series.

Summary:

Gameplay: Good

I would consider later games in the series better in that regard, but yes, it’s up there.

Story: Minimal

The Mega Man games in general tend to just have excuse plots, though the X series at least puts more into them than the classic series. You don’t really need much of a story for a game like this, though, so it works.

Graphics: Good

The graphics are fine, pretty standard for the SNES, though I will say that there might be too many stages that kind of just look generically metallic (Flame Mammoth’s comes to mind). Still, it’s not as bad in this regard as X3 was, really.

Music: Good

I don’t really have any complaints about the music. Particularly good tracks are the themes from the first fortress stage, Spark Mandrill’s stage, Armored Armadillo’s stage, and Storm Eagle’s stage. A few of the stage themes seem overly similar in style (though again, X3 was worse). There are definitely games in the series with better soundtracks, though.

Positives: One nice thing about this game is that it doesn’t go for all the extra waffle that some of the others do. There are no randomly-appearing bosses to worry about, for instance.

Negatives: The fortress stages suck, and so does the final boss. Also, the sole purpose of the helmet upgrade in this game is to obtain more hidden powerups.

Final score: 6

Mega Man X is a pretty fun game and a worthy successor to the classic series, even if it doesn’t play quite the same and, in my opinion, is outclassed by at least some of its sequels. To anyone who likes sidescrolling action games, especially if they have a SNES, I would recommend checking it out.