406. TMTF Reviews No More

I won’t be reviewing stuff anymore on this blog.

(That’s the short version of this post, so you may stop reading here if you like.)

Since the dawn of time—well, since late 2011—I have reviewed media for this blog. Yes, I know I have a problem. I have the spiritual gift of nitpicking. I can’t help it. Since I already reviewed things in the privacy of my muddled mind, it seemed logical to write expanded versions of those reviews for TMTF.

I wound up tearing through books (and later video games) faster than I could review them, so I eventually decided to review things in groups instead of individually. A single Review Roundup could replace five or six individual blog posts. Perfect!

A problem arose, however: Reviews become really tedious to write. In a small way, they also made reading books, playing video games, and watching movies kind of a chore. I found myself frequently making mental notes: I have to remember to mention this in the review. I can’t forget to talk about that. Oh, I’ve got to bring up this point. With so many notes and observations rattling about in my head, I found it harder to enjoy whatever I was doing.

In other words, reviews took the fun out of fun.

I’m always reluctant to remove features from this blog. I like consistency, and I don’t like giving up on things. All the same, like other abandoned features before it, Review Roundups shall cease. TMTF shall blunder on without them, with heavy heart and lighter step.

I don’t regret reviewing stuff. Reviews were good mental exercises. Besides, I’ll continue making mental reviews; I just won’t write ’em down anymore. Ending this blog’s formal reviews leaves more room for… um… whatever it is we do around here. Heck if I know.

There is at least one good thing we’re doing around here—we’re raising money to provide clean water to impoverished people for Christmas! Please take a moment to check out Operation Yuletide. There are even rewards and stuff! Check it out here!

399. Review Roundup: Stupidly Long Edition

In the past few months, I finished some stupidly long books, films, and video games. Some are truly lengthy; others feel overlong due to tedium or slow pacing. A few are well worth their length. The rest overstay their welcome.

In this Review Roundup, I’ll take a quick look at Les MisérablesMetal Gear Solid 4The Once and Future KingSecret of Mana, Rise of the Guardians, and The Godfather Parts I and II.

I’ll try to keep this short. Spoilers: I’ll probably fail.

Les Misérables

Lez Miz coverI read the abridged Les Misérables a few years ago. It was fantastic. Set in nineteenth-century France, this epic story follows an escaped convict named Jean Valjean. His journey from grief to grace to redemption spans decades, interwoven with tales of war, crime, revolution, and romance. The abridged Les Misérables is one of the finest novels I have ever read.

The complete, unabridged Les Misérables is a badly-paced novel burdened with boring details and jumbled together with a bunch of essays. The story moves with all the grace of a drunken hippo with a blindfold and only three legs.

As a writer, I usually respect an artist’s original vision. Not this time. In this case, I think the artist’s original vision is deeply flawed. The book has too much detail and a number of subplots that go nowhere, but those aren’t its worst faults. At frequent intervals, the novel is interrupted by rambling essays about minor details. How can readers stay invested in the tale of Jean Valjean when it’s constantly derailed by the author’s digressions on street lingo or the Battle of Waterloo?

For example, at the climax of the novel, a band of freedom fighters makes a heroic last stand against the army in Paris as Jean Valjean flees through the sewers. In the next chapter, the author kills the story’s momentum with an essay describing how much money the city of Paris loses by dumping its sewer waste in the river instead of converting it to manure. Never mind Jean Valjean’s sewer escape! Never mind the martyrs of the revolution! All that must wait until the author finishes ranting about sewers several chapters later.

If the author really felt his opinions were so important, he should have published them separately. Les Misérables was written as a serial, but when it was finally published as a complete work, his digressions could have been included as appendices at the back of the book.

Read Les Misérables—the abridged one. For heaven’s sake, don’t waste your time on the unabridged version.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

MGS4 coverMetal Gear Solid 4 is a video game that thinks it’s an action movie.

In the, um, distant future of 2014, war has changed. A group called the Patriots has made war a business. Meaningless battles are fought all over the world by privately-owned mercenary companies, fueling a worldwide war economy. Using technology, economics, and the media—and nanomachines, of course—the Patriots control everything.

War has changed, and so has Solid Snake. This legendary soldier has aged prematurely due to a terminal genetic condition. Snake has become, in his thirties or forties, an old man with less than a year to live. When his former commanding officer asks him to undertake one last mission, Snake sets out to bring down the Patriots and end the cycle of war before the whole world burns. After all, what does he have to lose?

In the past couple of years, I’ve come to love the Metal Gear Solid games. I keep comparing them to the films of Quentin Tarantino. Packed with dialogue and populated by larger-than-life characters, they are violent, campy, stylish, contemplative, and frequently ridiculous.

Metal Gear Solid 4 is characteristically Metal Gear Solid-ish, and it does a superb job of pulling everything together. The games that preceded it are radically different in tone and story. Metal Gear Solid is a military thriller with shades of Tom Clancy’s novels and superhero comics. (It would make a great movie.) Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty starts as an action game and spirals off into postmodern intrigue. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a James Bond-style adventure set in the sixties. MGS4 somehow ties together plot threads from previous games, uniting them in a triumphant (and surprisingly cohesive) conclusion to Solid Snake’s story.

The gameplay and level design of MGS4 are polished for a fairly smooth experience. For the first time in the series, Snake actually pilots one of the eponymous Metal Gears in an exhilarating clash of giant robots. A couple of the other boss fights are brilliantly designed. Tracking and shadowing targets adds a little variety to the usual shooting and sneaking.

Rex Vs. Ray

After three games of sneaking around in the shadows, a giant robot fight was long overdue.

If the game has a problem, it’s the cutscenes—scripted scenes that take away control from the player. These are superbly produced, but also really long. I mean really, really long. I spent probably a quarter of my time with the game watching instead of playing. MGS4 is a movie superimposed on a video game.

I also have a serious problem with the game’s portrayal of women. The Metal Gear Solid series has its share of good-looking ladies, but the babes of MGS4 aren’t sexy spies or cute scientists—they are freaking PTSD victims. Several of the game’s bosses are traumatized women trapped in armored suits and forced back onto the battlefield. When their powered armors are destroyed, these ladies crawl out in skintight bodysuits as the camera ogles their curves. I think it’s supposed to be sexy in a PG-13 kind of way, but it comes off as creepy and insensitive. There are just a few of these scenes, but yeesh.

It had a few disappointments, yet I really enjoyed Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. The game is a must for fans of the series. For new players, I recommend Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater as a better introduction.

The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King coverThe Once and Future King is a poignant tale of failure. Based on Arthurian legends, the novel follows King Arthur from his childhood studies under Merlin to his final regrets as an old man. Woven into Arthur’s story is the tale of Lancelot, Arthur’s greatest knight, who follows his own ambitions and makes his own mistakes.

It’s quite a long novel, but unlike Les Misérables, every page is worthwhile. It reinterprets the Arthurian legends, setting them centuries later and giving their characters much greater complexity. Arthur, for example, no longer establishes his Round Table (an order of knights governed by chivalry) for the sake of honor or conquest. The Round Table is reimagined as a redirection of violence from selfish to noble ends. Arthur is more than a king. He is an inventor of civilization.

At first, the novel is lighthearted and often hilarious. In fact, the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone is based on the early chapters of The Once and Future King. The difference is that in the film, Arthur’s coronation is a happy ending, whereas in the book, it’s only the beginning of his struggles. The tone goes from funny to tragic as Arthur grows from a boy to a man.

The Once and Future King is easily the finest book I’ve read so far this year, and the definitive retelling of King Arthur’s story for our age. I highly recommend it.

Secret of Mana

Secret of Mana coverI had wanted to play this game for years. Released around the same time as RPG classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, for the same system and by the same company, Secret of Mana is widely hailed as a masterpiece of the SNES era.

It’s kind of terrible.

Yeah, it looks nice. Don't be fooled.

Yeah, it looks nice. Don’t be fooled.

There are good things about it. The battle system is robust, engaging, and way ahead of its time. Secret of Mana looks great, with bright colors and attractive old-timey graphics. Its menus are neat. I can understand why the game was so well received in its day. However, its weaknesses greatly outnumber its strengths. The music is forgettable, the story is an undeveloped stream of clichés, the game design is frequently obtuse, and the game settles into a rhythm of dull repetition that lasts way too long.

If you’re looking for an RPG classic, for heaven’s sake play Chrono Trigger and leave Secret of Mana in the nineties where it belongs.

Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians posterI had low expectations for Rise of the Guardians, but it wasn’t bad.

The film recasts Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and other figures of childhood lore as Guardians: members of a league that protects the happiness of children. When the Boogeyman tries to darken the world with nightmares, the Guardians recruit an amnesiac Jack Frost to restore the belief and hope of kids everywhere.

Despite its generic title, Rise of the Guardians is a colorful, well-paced fairy-tale film. (Unlike the other media in this Review Roundup, it doesn’t feel particularly long.) The Guardians are mostly likable; I particularly enjoyed Santa Claus as a gruff Russian and the Sandman as a silent protagonist. The villain is sinister and well-developed. By far the weakest link is Jack Frost, whose angst, amnesia, bland narration, and boy-band looks hit all the wrong notes.

It isn’t a classic, but Rise of the Guardians is all right.

The Godfather Parts I and II

The Godfather covers

The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are allegedly two of the greatest films ever made. I decided I should see them. It was, as the Godfather himself might have put it, a recommendation I could not refuse.

The first Godfather film tells the story of the Corleone family, an Italian-American crime syndicate led by the eponymous godfather, Vito, and later by his son Michael. The second movie follows Michael as he consolidates power, and flashes back to Vito’s arrival in the United States and rise to power as a criminal kingpin.

Oh, and the first one consists largely of Marlon Brando making this face:

Marlon Brando scowling

Seriously. This is his default expression.

The Godfather movies are fairly old, and a lot longer and slower than contemporary films. They move at the leisurely pace of novels. (If it were made today, The Godfather would probably be a television miniseries, not a series of films.) The meticulous pacing allows for character development and plenty of subplots, but definitely makes watching the films a chore.

The Godfather movies boast great acting and complex characters. Vito is not just a literal godfather to his godson, but a sort of father-figure to his community. His life of crime is governed by strict rules of honor and loyalty. Michael, at first an innocent young man, hardens into a ruthless mob boss who abandons his father’s principles. In telling their stories, the films touch upon themes such as revenge, responsibility, betrayal, tradition, religion, corruption, and family.

The Godfather and The Godfather Part II reward patient viewers with the epic story of a family’s descent into darkness. If you’re looking for something easy to watch, however, you had better look elsewhere.

What books, films, shows, or video games have you enjoyed lately? Let us know in the comments!

385. Review Roundup: Death Game Edition

It has been a while since TMTF’s last Review Roundup. Why don’t we look at some stories about death games?

In these media, protagonists gamble their lives in dangerous games. Some of these are literal: formal competitions with rules. Some are figurative: risky ventures into crime. And one of these stories has nothing at all to do with death games. (I enjoy writing these reviews, but not enough to plan my media consumption around them!)

Let’s talk about The Hunger Games trilogy, Ant-ManThe Big LebowskiIs It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, and Whisper of the Heart.

The Hunger Games trilogy

The Hunger Games trilogyFor the first time in years, I picked up a popular Young Adult novel to find out what all the fuss is about. (My last investigation of a literary sensation led me to read Twilight, a mistake from which I never fully recovered.) The Hunger Games is a pop culture phenomenon, and I meant to find out why.

I dunno, guys. I wasn’t all that impressed. Maybe I’m just a grumpy snob, but the Hunger Games trilogy neither dazzled nor entertained me. The books aren’t bad, but I wouldn’t call them classics.

The Hunger Games books tell the tale of Katniss Everdeen, a pragmatic teen trapped in an impoverished district of Panem. The government of this dystopian country rules its outer districts by fear and humiliation, selecting two children from each district every year and forcing them all to fight to the death. This gruesome event, the Hunger Games, is televised throughout Panem as an amusement for the wealthy; for the poor, it’s a reminder of their powerlessness. Katniss is selected for the Hunger Games, and the books follow her rise and fall from gladiator to celebrity to revolutionary to whiny PTSD victim.

The Hunger Games books are lauded for their smart setup and gripping story. I’ll be the first to admit there is truth to these praises. Panem is an interesting setting. The concept of the Hunger Games is fascinating, providing a way for a corrupt government to placate the rich and subjugate the poor. The story has its twists and turns, and the first book is actually pretty engaging.

However, the characters are mostly dull and unlikable. Katniss, who narrates the story, lacks much personality besides a coldly analytical attitude and occasional flickers of affection. As the books wear on, Katniss is traumatized by her horrific experiences, becoming angsty and angry—a change in her personality, sure, but not for the better. More promising characters, such as foppish Effie Trinket and drunken Haymitch Abernathy, end up disappointing.

When it comes to tone and style, I get the impression the Hunger Games books aren’t sure what they want to be. They have a sort of gritty realism concerning poverty and war. I appreciate that. However, this gloomy approach is at odds with the books’ ludicrous sci-fi touches and predictable Young Adult nonsense. (Yes, there’s a love triangle, and it’s annoying.)

In the end, the Hunger Games books have just enough harsh realism to be depressing and just enough teen kitsch not to be taken seriously. They fall in a literary no man’s land, refusing to embrace either realism or sensationalism, and embodying the worst traits of both. I find it hard to recommend these books.


Ant-ManMoving on to something much more entertaining, Ant-Man is another big, dumb, spectacularly fun Marvel movie. Unlike the Hunger Games books, Ant-Man embraces its own goofiness in a way that’s a joy to see.

Ant-Man begins with Scott Lang feeling very small. This well-meaning ex-convict can’t keep a job or convince his ex-wife to let him spend time with their little girl. When Lang meets an old inventor named Hank Pym—he burgles Pym’s home, actually, but that’s not the point—Pym offers him “a shot at redemption,” meaning an opportunity to put on a high-tech suit, shrink to the size of an ant, and dive back into the life-or-death game of high-stakes burglary.

Look, if you’ve seen any recent Marvel movie, you know what to expect at this point. Ant-Man is full of quotable quips, flashy action scenes, and comic book lore, with a little sentimentality sprinkled here and there.

This time, however, there are two things to make the film stand out. First is an emphasis on father-daughter relationships. This motif isn’t developed as fully as a it could be, but it works. The second thing is that Ant-Man is basically a superhero heist movie, in the same way the first Captain America is a superhero war film and the second one is a superhero cold war thriller. Ant-Man isn’t about saving the world, but stealing stuff… to save the world, I guess.

It’s still a nice touch.

I really enjoyed Ant-Man. It nods at other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe without depending on them, and I look forward to seeing Ant-Man in future films. Not bad for such a little guy.

The Big Lebowski

The Big LebowskiWith that, we move on from a small hero to a larger-than-life one in The Big Lebowski. Ironically, however, the film’s hero isn’t actually the Big Lebowski, but a slacker with the same name (I’ll call him the Lesser Lebowski) who loves bowling, booze, and tacking the word “man” to the end of nearly every sentence.

The Big Lebowski begins when thugs storm the home of Jeff Lebowski, a laid-back stoner known as “the Dude,”  and pee on his rug. It was a nice rug, man. It really tied the room together. The thugs threatened the Dude (and peed on his rug) under the impression he was “the Big Lebowski,” a millionaire with the same name. When the Dude takes his bowling buddies’ advice to seek compensation from the Big Lebowski for the rug, he becomes snared in a game of deception, violence, kidnapping, cursing, and postmodern art.

This movie is sort of a black comedy and sort of a noir crime film, but it’s mostly Jeff Bridges bowling, drinking, and wandering around Los Angeles. In the end, the film’s complex web of crime and deception unravels to reveal a whole lot of nothing, and I think that’s the point: there never was one.

This was quite an entertaining movie. It ain’t one for kids—it has bullets, boobs, and f-bombs beyond count—but for adults with a healthy sense of the absurd, The Big Lebowski is a treat.

Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?

Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a DungeonWell, is it?

The oddly-titled anime Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? is the tale of Bell, a nice young man who longs to become an adventurer—to impress the ladies, of course. He lives in a medieval fantasy town whose existence revolves around the eponymous dungeon: a labyrinth teeming with monsters. Adventurers join familias—guilds sponsored by gods or goddesses—and venture into the dungeon in a dangerous game for treasure and glory. In quest to become a dungeon-conquering hero, Bell accepts the sponsorship of a down-on-her-luck goddess named Hestia. This unlikely pair must work together for Bell to have any chance of becoming a master adventurer and impressing the ladies… well, one in particular.

I won’t lie, guys. This anime is incredibly dumb. Remember what I said about Ant-Man embracing its goofiness? This show does the same, but with roughly ten thousand times as much enthusiasm.

I mean, the anime’s opening theme has a momentary scene of Bell and Hestia brushing their teeth. Look at this. Look at it.

Toothbrush dance (GIF)

This is basically the entire show: dumb as all heck, but endearing in its silliness, with some gratuitous cleavage for good measure.

The world of Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? functions exactly like a video game (an MMORPG, to be precise) without actually being a video game. Its adventurers gain experience and level up—heck, they even have statistics (appearing as magical tattoos on their backs) reflecting their competency in various areas. Monsters respawn on a set timetable, and powerful creatures explicitly called bosses guard certain floors of the dungeon. The setting is instantly comprehensible to gamers, but at the cost of making absolutely no sense. Why do adventurers level up? What revives the monsters that respawn? What the heck is going on?!

(It is very faintly hinted that the gods and goddesses of ancient times created this video game-like world for their own enjoyment, but no real explanation is ever given.)

This is a show in which half the female characters have crushes on the hero, like Twilight in reverse, and most female adventurers wear stupid chain mail bikinis. I can’t defend or recommend this anime. It’s really, really dumb.

All the same, I kinda enjoyed it. Bell, who has a massive inferiority complex, is kind and friendly: a welcome change of pace from angsty or arrogant anime heroes. Hestia works odd jobs to support him, despite being, y’know, a goddess. The show seldom takes itself too seriously; the rare occasions it does are some of its weaker moments. For the most part, its good-natured goofiness made it fun to watch, if not intellectually rewarding.

Whisper of the Heart

Whisper of the HeartAt last we arrive at a film that not even I can pretend fits the vague “death game” theme of this Review Roundup: Whisper of the Heart. Because of this movie, John Denver’s all-American classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads” will forever remind me of urban Japan.

Shizuku is a bookish Japanese teen, sharing a cramped apartment with her family. She notices one day that all of her library books were previously checked out by someone named Seiji, and wonders who he might be. Shizuku later ends up at an antique shop. Its owner encourages her to pursue her passion for writing stories, and also introduces her to his grandson: the mysterious Seiji. As Shizuku’s love of writing grows, so does another kind of love.

Studio Ghibli is magnificent. Whisper of the Heart was one of the few Studio Ghibli films I had never seen, and I’m glad I finally watched it.

I’ll be honest: Whisper of the Heart is no masterpiece. Nah, it’s merely a touching, charming, beautifully-animated coming-of-age story with a scene that nearly brought tears to my cynical eyes. By lofty Studio Ghibli standards, this is merely a decent film. By any other standards, Whisper of the Heart is wonderful.

I enjoyed the film probably more than most people because I identify with Shizuku’s desire to write stories. I was Shizuku once, in a manner of speaking: young, naïve, hopeful, insecure, eager to share my stories, and scared no one would want to read them—or worse, that they wouldn’t be worth reading.

Whisper of the Heart has its fair share of sentimentality: far more, in fact, than nearly any other Studio Ghibli film. The movie lacks the effortless grace and emotional punch of the studio’s finest works… but there is one scene, in which several musicians strike up their instruments for a joyful, impromptu performance of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” that brought me closer to crying than any film in recent memory (except Inside Out, of course).

It may not be as popular as Studio Ghibli’s other movies, but Whisper of the Heart is absolutely worth watching, especially if you’re an aspiring writer, a Studio Ghibli fan, or a fan of romance.

What books, films, shows, or video games have you enjoyed lately? Let us know in the comments!

369. Review Roundup: Fairy Tale Edition

Once upon a time, in the faraway land of Indiana, Adam the blogger enjoyed a number of whimsical stories and contemporary fairy tales. Here are his impressions of three animated films, a video game, and an anime: Inside OutBraveBrother Bear, Ni No Kuni, and Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun.

These are the stories of a plucky princess, an Inuit tribesman, a brave little boy, a Japanese manga artist, and the personifications of a girl’s emotions. Do they live happily ever after?

Let’s find out.

Inside Out

Inside Out

Inside Out brought me closer to weeping openly in a movie theater than any other film has done. (Fortunately, I have a heart of stone, sparing myself and my younger brother the embarrassment of annoying our fellow theatergoers.) This is a brilliant movie, and I have literally nothing bad to say about it.

Pixar’s Inside Out pictures the human mind as a control room operated by five engineers, each representing an emotion: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. In the mind of Riley, a girl from Minnesota, her emotions struggle to keep her happy as she moves with her parents to California. When an accident sends Joy and Sadness to the farthest reaches of Riley’s mind, these unlikely partners must make it back to the control center before Riley breaks down.

This film boasts the usual Pixar polish, with top-notch animation, writing, and performances. Beyond that, Inside Out is the first Pixar movie in years to feature a truly original concept. (Of the past four Pixar films, two were sequels, one was a prequel, and one had the style of a traditional fairy tale—more on that last one in just a bit.) The movie’s concept of the mind is creative, clever, and—importantly—consistent. The way the mind works in Inside Out isn’t hard to understand, and the film does a fine job of sticking to it.

As I hinted above, this is a film with emotional punch. Pixar has a gift for depicting emotion with heartfelt sincerity and simplicity: Carl’s irritable despondency in Up, the toys’ sense of loss in Toy Story 3, Mike’s resignation to his limitations in Monsters UniversityInside Out is quite literally a film about emotions, so you can bet it hits the viewer—at any rate, this viewer—with feels.

This is pretty much how I felt at the end of the film.

This is pretty much how I felt at the end of the film.

Inside Out is a fantastic film. Somewhere deep inside my mind, my sense of Joy is fiddling with whatever knobs and buttons affect my actions, willing me to recommend this film. Watch it. Your own sense of Joy will thank you.



Here’s another Pixar classic, this time telling the age-old story of a princess who falls in love with a prince and—what’s that? She doesn’t fall in love with a prince? Well, that’s different.

Brave is an original fairy tale. Set in Scotland, it tells the tale of a princess named Merida, who decides she doesn’t want to let her parents marry her off to any of the local chieftains’ sons. Merida tries to change her fate… and accidentally transforms her mother into a bear. Mother and daughter must shelve their pride, settle their differences, and somehow make things right.

The film’s independent, self-reliant heroine is a refreshing change of pace from the mild princesses of other fairy-tale movies, and I appreciate the way the Merida and her mother learn to understand, respect, and trust each other. Merida’s family is a colorful bunch. Even the chieftains and their sons, who could easily have been throwaway characters, have some personality.

As a Pixar movie, Brave doesn’t feel particularly, well, brave. It’s a fairy tale. Even with its feminist undertones and emphasis on family relationships, it treads a lot of familiar ground. It’s a fine film nevertheless, and I appreciate it as a deeper alternative to the princess-flavored romances Disney loves so much.

By the way, does the Scottish setting of Brave give anyone else flashbacks to How to Train Your Dragon? No? I guess it’s just me, then.

Brother Bear

Brother Bear

Here’s another animated movie about people turning into bears. Why do people keep turning into bears? I just can’t bear it. (I’m so, so sorry.)

Brother Bear is a Disney animated film from the early two thousands: that nebulous stretch of Disney history whose movies nobody remembers. In the film, an Inuit tribesman named Kenai seeks revenge on a bear that killed a loved one, and is turned into a bear for his trouble. He must go on a quest, and learn the power of love, and—y’know, forget it. If you’ve ever seen a Disney film, you know where this is going.

This is not a bad movie. The Canadian wilderness is a great setting, and Inuit culture is largely unexplored in pop fiction. The acting, animation, and story were all perfectly adequate. I just couldn’t help feeling that this film didn’t really need to be made. Brother Bear is an uninspired blend of other Disney movies. Its plot borrows heavily from The Emperor’s New Groove: a man turned into an animal finds a buddy and goes on a trip to regain his (literal and figurative) humanity. The film’s music channels the soundtrack of Tarzan, down to a song from Phil Collins. It’s all been done before.

Brother Bear does have its moments. A couple of moose with heavy Canadian accents wander in and out of the movie, providing comic relief and stealing every scene in which they appear. The movie lacks a traditional villain, which is a refreshing change from Disney’s usual black-and-white morality.

In the end, however, Brother Bear is nothing special. I recommend The Emperor’s New Groove instead: pretty much the same story, but much funnier.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Ni No Kuni cover

Flipping heck, this game is amazing. I’ve already discussed the excellence of Ni No Kuni, so I’ll try not to ramble!

Ni No Kuni is a beautiful fairy tale. (It also happens to be a JRPG for the PlayStation 3.) It tells the story of Oliver, a little boy who sets out on a quest to save his mum. Accompanied by Drippy, the “Lord High Lord of the Fairies,” Oliver must mend broken hearts, defeat an evil jinn, and rescue a parallel world.

That world is one of the most charming and beautiful places I’ve seen in a video game. The look of Ni No Kuni was based on the work of the legendary Studio Ghibli, which handled the game’s animated cutscenes. This a lovely game. Apart from the cutscenes, which are nothing less than I expected of the Oscar-winning animation studio, the game itself is gorgeous.

I mean, look at it. Just look at it.

This is a gameplay screenshot, not an animated cutscene. This is what the game looks like. Ain't it pretty?

This is a gameplay screenshot. This is what the game looks like, more or less. Ain’t it pretty?

Ni No Kuni is visually appealing, but its excellence doesn’t stop there. The music, composed by renowned film composer Joe Hisaishi and performed by a live orchestra, is fantastic. Most importantly, the game is flipping fun to play.

The gameplay blends the fighting and adventuring of Final Fantasy games and the creature-catching of Pokémon. Oliver and his companions command familiars, adorable monsters that handle most of the fighting. Like Pokémon, familiars can be caught, trained, and metamorphosed into stronger creatures. Outside of battle, exploration is fun and sidequests abound.

Ni No Kuni even includes the full text of an original book, The Wizard’s Companion, which contains maps, spells, descriptions of familiars, old-fashioned illustrations, runes to decipher, and fairy tales. Yes, this fairy tale contains fairy tales of its own, and they’re delightful. In fact, The Wizard’s Companion is so good that I wish I owned a hard copy. As Oliver travels, he gathers the book’s scattered pages, unlocking more reading material.

Alas, Ni No Kuni is not quite perfect. It’s hard to read The Wizard’s Companion on a television screen, and flipping through its pages is a pain.

By far the biggest flaw of Ni No Kuni is its ending. Without spoiling anything, I must admit that it feels tacked on. The game reaches a satisfying conclusion, with Oliver reaching his goal and finishing his character arc… and then the game goes on for another four to six hours, limping doggedly to an anticlimax. Although the game’s final chapter answers some lingering questions, a little rewriting would have tied up those loose ends sooner, giving the game a stronger finish.

Despite its weak ending, this game is one of the finest I’ve ever played. RPGs aren’t for everyone, but for anyone with the patience, Ni No Kuni is a gem.

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun

I can’t decide whether Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is a heartwarming parody or a self-aware romantic comedy. Either way, it’s brilliant.

In Japan, there is a genre of manga (comics) called shojo. This genre is aimed at teenage girls, generally focusing on romance and emotional characters. Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is the story of a high school student named Sakura. When she tries to confess romantic feelings for Nozaki, one of her classmates, he mistakes her for a fan of his work. You see, Nozaki—an analytical, unromantic wet blanket—is secretly the writer and artist behind a popular shojo manga series, Let’s Fall in Love. When Nozaki invites Sakura to be his assistant, she agrees, hoping to get closer to him.

This twelve-episode series is a hilarious deconstruction of romantic comedies. The eponymous Nozaki-kun is intrigued by romance, but only from an academic point of view. For example, he loves St. Valentine’s Day, but only because observing romantic couples gives him ideas for his manga series. The thought of actually being romantic never crosses his mind. This makes for some delightful moments when Sakura is convinced he is finally falling in love with her… only to realize he’s testing out ideas for his manga.

For example, Nozaki realizes it’s romantic for a man and woman to share a bicycle, but he doesn’t understand why. He tests the scenario repeatedly with Sakura, eventually acquiring a tandem bike and riding down city streets with Sakura reluctantly in tow. Once he figures out the most romantic method for sharing a bike, he reasons, he can use it in his story for optimal effect.

Romantic, I guess

This is romantic, right? Right?!

As Sakura becomes acquainted with Nozaki and his other assistants, she realizes how much of his manga is based on people she knows. For example, the heroine of Let’s Fall in Love is based on Mikoshiba, a flirtatious male friend of Nozaki’s who is secretly very insecure.

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun deconstructs rom-com clichés, yet the series is never bitter or mean-spirited. I was also pleasantly surprised by the show’s family-friendly tone. Japanese anime is notorious for its inappropriate content. As I began this anime about high school romance, I resigned myself to the saucy innuendos and panty shots that plague other series. Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun rises above cheap lewdness, keeping things at a PG level. I found the show’s innocence added to its charm, which is already considerable.

Like many anime, this one offers fascinating glimpses into Japanese culture. I was particularly interested by the creative process of writing and drawing manga, which is gradually shown in the series as Nozaki enlists more assistants.

I highly recommend Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun to anyone who likes anime or romantic comedies. I’m not a particular fan of either, yet I really enjoyed it.

What books, films, shows, or video games have you enjoyed lately? Let us know in the comments!

360. Review Roundup: Violent Movie Edition

I like to think I’m not a particularly violent person. Sure, I own five machetes, three swords, and a few knives, but I don’t use them. In fact, I seldom show aggression, except when playing video games. All’s fair in love, war, and Mario Kart.

Despite my peaceable nature, I occasionally watch violent movies. I saw quite a few in the past month: films full of epic car chases, superheroes, dystopian futures, demonic possessions, and British cops eating Cornetto ice cream cones. I may not be doing formal reviews, yet here are some brief impressions of Mad Max: Fury RoadAvengers: Age of UltronSnowpiercerThe Exorcist, and Hot Fuzz.

Hold on to your hats.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max

Mad Max: Fury Road consists of a brutal car chase and little else. Do you know what? I am five thousand percent fine with that.

Most of the film is a chase in which an entire convoy of cars follows an armored tanker truck across a desert. The cars—which were built, I can only assume, by psychopathic punk rockers with welding torches—bristle with spikes and assorted weaponry. One truck serves as a stage for a man playing an electric guitar that shoots flames.

Yes, this is that kind of movie.

In the film, a warlord named Immortan Joe reins unchallenged over refugees in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. When one of his lieutenants betrays him and flees with his wives in a tanker truck, Joe sends a convoy to reclaim his prized “possessions.” One of the outrageous vehicles in the convey has an unusual hood ornament in the form of a wanderer named Max. He may be strapped to the front of a war machine, but Max is a survivor. Explosions and mayhem ensue.

Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t have much dialogue, but it hardly needs it. This is an action film in its purest sense. The chase sequences were filmed mostly with practical effects and minimal CGI—meaning the film shows real cars, real stuntmen, and real explosions. It’s impressive stuff, and stylish as heck.

For having little dialogue—and being, y’know, flipping ridiculous—Mad Max: Fury Road tells quite a good story. The characters aren’t terribly well-developed, but they are memorable and clearly defined. In this film with sparse dialogue and relentless explosions, profound themes emerge: survival, longing for home, and empowerment of women. Mad Max: Fury Road is a far more intelligent film than it has any right to be, while never losing its sense of good, stupid fun.

I really enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road. If you enjoy, or have any tolerance for, over-the-top action movies, I recommend it.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Age of Ultron

Eh, it was all right.

What? You want more of a review than that? Here goes: It was all right, but it needed more Andy Serkis.

In seriousness, Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t bad. In the film, the Avengers, a colorful band of superheroes, battle Ultron: a rogue AI that deems humanity unfit to live. There’s a little more to the movie, of course, but that’s the gist. If you’ve seen any of the recent Marvel movies, you probably know the drill at this point.

I liked a lot of things about the film. First of all, Ultron is a marvelous villain with a menacing appearance and a personality defined by sardonic contempt. (I appreciate a bad guy with a sense of humor.) Ultron has a vision for a better, brighter future. It just happens to be a future without human beings. It’s nothing personal.

I was impressed by how the obligatory action scenes were balanced by a surprising amount of character development. The Avengers get plenty of scenes without spectacular fights or expository dialogue—scenes that allow them simply to be themselves. Hawkeye, the least popular Avenger, gets an astonishing amount of characterization. Andy Serkis makes a brief but memorable appearance as a South African arms dealer, stealing the scene from everyone but Ultron.

This brings me to one more outstanding feature of the film: It takes place all over the world. Look, I like America, but I’m tired of seeing it in Marvel’s superhero movies. Avengers: Age of Ultron spends most of its time in Asian, African, and Eastern European countries. I really appreciated the change of scenery.

There are, of course, things I didn’t appreciate about Avengers: Age of Ultron. The film feels slightly suffocated by the weight of all the Marvel movies that came before it. Too many characters are stuffed into the film, including a pair of twins that have no business whatsoever being there. With a couple of minor tweaks, Avengers: Age of Ultron could have worked perfectly without them. One or two unexplained plot elements stick out egregiously. Unlike the breakable hero of Marvel’s Daredevil, the Avengers are invulnerable, and therefore boring.

My final problem with the movie (slight spoiler ahead) is the introduction late in the film of a messianic character in the form of a heroic android. This good AI is a foil to Ultron, sure, but it’s also a literal deus ex machina. Besides, a theme of the movie is that creating self-aware machines like Ultron is a bad idea. The Avengers defeat the godlike AI… by creating another godlike AI. Hmm.

In the end, despite its faults, Avengers: Age of Ultron is another solid entry in the Marvel movie canon. In other news, I think Ultron and GLaDOS would probably get along really well, to the detriment (and possible extinction) of humans everywhere.



In Snowpiercer, a new ice age has wiped out nearly all life on Earth. The only survivors are the passengers of a high-tech train, the eponymous Snowpiercer, that circles the globe once a year. Built for doomsday, the train is entirely self-sufficient with a powerful engine and carefully regulated ecosystems. The privileged passengers ride in luxurious cars toward the front of the train. Middle cars contain necessities such as orchards and water tanks. The squalid rear cars of the train are reserved for the stowaways. Tired of living in filth and fear, these stowaways revolt against the train’s authorities. The rebels, led by a tough-as-nails passenger named Curtis, must fight their way forward one car at a time.

Snowpiercer is brilliant. Its absurd dystopia is compelling and unique: a society whose socioeconomic classes are divided by train cars. The train doesn’t merely represent a social order—it is a social order, laid out in a neat line. There is a golden simplicity in the structure of Snowpiercer‘s dystopia, and it was gripping to watch Curtis and his crew advance through the train. The train itself is a fascinating chain of set pieces, starting with filthy rear cars and getting progressively more interesting the farther Curtis and company advance.

Although Snowpiercer is a South Korean film, it stars mostly English-speaking actors. I was surprised by how many of them I recognized. Curtis is played by Chris Evans, with other roles filled by Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Ed Harris. Snowpiercer has all the visual polish of a Hollywood blockbuster, but is a much smarter film than most American action flicks.

It isn’t a cheerful film, and it’s definitely not for kids, but Snowpiercer is superb: easily one of the best sci-fi movies I’ve seen. I highly recommend it, especially for viewers who like intelligent action films or dystopian fiction.

The Exorcist

The ExorcistI’m no fan of horror films, but I decided to watch this one. For science. The Exorcist, an iconic and culturally significant film, depicts the gradual demonic possession of a girl, and the attempts of two priests to drive out the demon.

My strongest impression of The Exorcist is that it’s really slow. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, I appreciate that the film takes time to develop its characters instead of rushing to sensational scares. I don’t know much about horror movies, but my impression is that their characters are often treated not as people, but as objects for death and dismemberment. The Exorcist acknowledges its characters as people, which makes their suffering at the hands (claws?) of the demon all the more gut-wrenching. However, while I appreciated the film’s slow-but-steady approach, I found it too slow. The movie’s ponderous pacing leads to an all-too-short denouement, which left me asking, “Heck, that’s it?”

I didn’t find The Exorcist all that scary. The buildup to the demon was excellent, and the scene in which it fully possesses the girl is terrifying, but from that point on the demon-possessed child is mostly silly. Her appearance is blatantly fake, like a Halloween outfit, and it just ain’t scary. By the point the girl starts vomiting lime-green goo, I couldn’t take the demon seriously. A subtler approach, with a lot less makeup, would have been far creepier.

The famous scene in which the demon takes over the girl is easily the scariest in the film, and it’s frankly shocking: especially for a film released in the seventies. Among other things, the girl repeatedly jams a crucifix into her vagina. (The scene isn’t explicit, but it is disturbing.) It’s disgusting and profane—but then, that’s the point. The artist in me is impressed by the strong characterization of the demon. The rest of me is grossed out.

Despite its solid characterization and few scary scenes, the poor pacing and tasteless schlock of The Exorcist make it hard to recommend.

Hot Fuzz

Hot FuzzQuestion: Is Hot Fuzz A) an action movie, B) an old-fashioned murder mystery, or C) a fantastic comedy? The correct answer, of course, is D) all of the above.

In Hot Fuzz, straight-laced policeman—sorry, police officer—Nicholas Angel is transferred from London to the sleepy town of Sandford for making his colleagues look bad. Although Sandford is practically free of crime, a string of suspicious deaths leads Angel to believe the quiet town hides a conspiracy. With his incompetent partner, Danny Butterman, in tow, Angel sets out to solve the gruesome Sandford murders, watching action movies and eating Cornetto ice cream cones along the way.

Hot Fuzz is a unique blend of genres. It has a bit of an Agatha Christie feel with its murders in a rural British village. The gunfights near the end are an affectionate send-up of Hollywood action movies. Most of all, Hot Fuzz is a superbly-written comedy. I watched it because of this glowing review on Kotaku, which perfectly describes the film’s tight screenplay: “Nearly every line of dialogue is either an explicit joke, a set-up to a future joke, or a call-back to a joke that was set up earlier. Some manage to be all three at once.”

As noted in the Kotaku review, Hot Fuzz satirizes action movies in its cinematography. In one scene, two cops run from a bomb about to explode, the camera pulls back expectantly, and… the bomb doesn’t explode. Its a neat subversion of the stereotypical Hollywood explosion. There are also tons of quick, Michael Bay-esque edits, but instead of showing glimpses of action—explosions, gunshots, car crashes!—they punctuate ordinary tasks—filling out paperwork, opening doors, watering plants!

I have only two significant criticisms of Hot Fuzz. First is a jarring tonal shift near the end. The film transitions none too gracefully from detective-story satire to blazing action, with a number of people acting out of character. It feels forced. The other problem is the gore. This film has an astonishing amount of blood, including an icky scene in which a man’s head is crushed by a falling piece of masonry. The gory violence, all of which is flagrantly fake, is probably meant to be funny, but I found it a tasteless blemish in otherwise brilliant comedy.

Despite its overblown violence and some foul language, Hot Fuzz is a clever, well-written satire of British mystery and American action. I highly recommend it.

357. The Reviews They Are a-Changin’

For years, I have reviewed books and video games for this blog. What can I say? I have a talent for being snobbish and judgmental. Finding fault with things comes naturally to me. It’s a gift. For that reason, TMTF Reviews have long been a feature on this blog.

This is about to change. I’ve decided to replace TMTF Reviews with a new feature: Review Roundups.

TMTF Review Roundup title cardTMTF Reviews are in-depth critiques of individual books or video games. By contrast, Review Roundups will assess several books, games, or films at a time. Roundups will be less formal than the old Reviews, offering brief impressions instead of long, detailed analyses.

Why are TMTF’s reviews a-changin’? The short answer is that comprehensive reviews are not much fun to write, and probably not much fun to read. As satisfying as it is to critique a book or video game at length, it’s also a bit tedious. Review Roundups will give me the opportunity to review more media without going into exhaustive (and exhausting) detail.

Review Roundups won’t be terribly frequent: maybe once a month or so. They certainly won’t take over this blog or steal the spotlight from… whatever it is we do around here. I don’t know.

Why do I review things at all? I suppose it’s for the same reason I write this blog—it’s fun! That said, I’m excited to continue nitpicking reviewing media for this blog.