Knives Out Review

2019 was an interesting year for films. Though it provided a few great movies, and fittingly capped off the movie decade in regards to franchise closures for Avengers and Star Wars, it was also a year that really magnified the disconnect between “serious” Hollywood and the moviegoing public. Not only were films that pandered directly to critics lavished with predictable praise – resulting in the baffling acclaim towards films like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a virtually plotless bore – while popular movies were widely ridiculed for being just that (as is evidenced by Martin Scorsese’s blatantly ignorant statements against Marvel films being met with acclaim by the filmmaking community, who applauded contempt for the average moviegoer like a bunch of trained seals).

Often at the heart of this disconnect was Rian Johnson, who in 2017 divided critics and audiences to a whole new degree with his take on Star Wars, The Last Jedi. Critics lauded the film for its supposed “subversion of expectations” and how it painted a normally ethereal series with a more hard-edged, cynical brush. Meanwhile, fans tended to feel The Last Jedi was so desperate to “subvert expectations” that it both abandoned logical narrative choices and betrayed character personalities.

Granted, The Last Jedi also exposed the more cancerous side of the Star Wars fandom, but critics often used that unsavory corner to blanket the entirety of The Last Jedi’s critics. If you didn’t like The Last Jedi, you weren’t simply a disappointed fan who felt the film undid all the goodwill J.J. Abrams did for the series with The Force Awakens, but you were automatically lumped in with the more toxic fans of the internet as an easy means to be discredited, thus allowing “serious Hollywood” to stroke its ego all the more.

This made the warm critical reception of Rian Johnson’s follow-up film, Knives Out, a foregone conclusion. But like all too many of 2019’s critical darlings, Knives Out is a film that feels undeserving of its ludicrous praise.

I admit I went into Knives Out with high hopes. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a whodunnit murder-mystery in theaters, and with a pretty stellar cast, Knives Out looked like it could have been the shot in the arm Hollywood needed to resurrect a long-dormant genre.

Unfortunately, Rian Johnson’s obsessive desire to “subvert expectations” once again shows up at the expense of a fluid narrative. After a strong opening act, the film takes a sharp detour in both genre and structure that robs the film of much of its potential enjoyment. It may pick things back up a bit by the end, but by that point, it’s too little too late for Knives Out.

The film starts off well enough, with wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) being found dead on the night of his 85th birthday by one of his maids, in what appears to be a suicide. Despite this, an anonymous party hires the aide of detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the scene, suspecting foul play.

It seems just about everyone who attended Harlan’s birthday celebration is a suspect, with Harlan making enemies with just about his entire family.

Harlan fired his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) from his position as the CEO of Harlan’s publishing company, and threatened to expose the affair of his son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) to Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Harlan’s eldest daughter and Richard’s wife. Harlan also removed his lazy grandson Hugh “Ransom” (Chris Evans) from his will, and cut off the allowance of his daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), after discovering she had been stealing money from him.

Benoit Blanc interrogates each member of the family, including grandchildren Meg (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell), as well as the housekeeping, most notably Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), who was Harlan’s caretaker and nurse, and probably the person Harlan was closest to in his later years.

Marta has a unique quirk that makes her a valuable asset in Blanc’s investigation: she gets sick when she lies. That’s not a metaphorical attribute, but she literally gets sick to her stomach and vomits from the stress and guilt of lying. Because of this, Blanc has Marta aide in his investigation, but Marta might know more than she’s letting on about what happened on the night of Harlan’s death.

Honestly, this aspect of the film is very well done. We get a good setup for the premise, most of the characters get a decent amount of time to showcase their personalities in their initial interviews with Blanc, and Marta’s presence – and unique ailment – add a fun twist to the proceedings. The first act suggests that maybe Knives Out is indeed the revitalization of the whodunnit it marketed itself as.

Then we abruptly get a revelation about Harlan’s death that kind of spoils the fun. Without spoiling too much, this particular revelation is only part of the bigger story, with the film letting the audience know there are additional details lying in wait. But once this revelation takes place, the whole ‘whodunnit’ premise that the film brags up so strongly largely disappears, and Knives Out instead becomes more about suspense than mystery. Sure, there are a few details about Harlan’s death that need solving, but because the film gives us a fakeout reveal pretty early on, all the other potential suspects become considerably less important, which makes an otherwise great cast feel sorely underutilized.

The film also has a bad tendency of breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule of visual mediums, by means of literally telling the audience who these characters are, instead of letting the characters’ reveal their personalities themselves. For example, Harlan’s grandson Jacob is often referred to as an “alt-right troll” and a “fascist” by his family, but all the character does is stare at his phone the entire film. I get that the implication is that he’s being a troll online, but because the character doesn’t do much of anything else but stare at his phone, he may as well be checking his email or looking at models on Instagram. You can’t just have the character stare at the phone the entire movie and have other characters say that he’s a stupid little punk. Make him a stupid little punk!

Sadly, after the film’s strong opening, much of Knives Out feels similarly dumbed down. Though the early parts of the film make a genuine attempt to make the audience think any member of Harlan’s family could have committed the crime, as the film goes on it’s so desperate to throw us off the scent of one particular character, that it becomes apparent that no one else could have done it except THAT character. That’s a rookie mistake in any murder mystery.

Again, the film does pick back up during its finale and the ultimate reveal, but by that point, the damage has been done. When Knives Out works well, it works very well – with sharp writing, great performances (particularly by Craig and Plummer), and a fun mystery…when it’s a mystery – the problem is that Rian Johnson’s need to “subvert expectations” through twists and turns ultimately ends up getting in the way of the films stronger aspects. Knives Out is a whodunnit in a time when such a film even existing is a rarity, yet it feels compelled to try and change up a genre that is the exact opposite of oversaturated in today’s movie landscape. It’s like digging up buried treasure, then emptying the treasure chest and putting different treasure inside. It’s like, okay, you already found buried treasure, what was the point of changing it?

To be fair, certain twists work fine (again, having a character who literally can’t lie without being found out is a fun little gimmick), but when one of those twists is blatantly revealing the majority of the murder details early on in a murder mystery, it makes the films other elements suffer. I can’t help but think Knives Out would have been a much better film if it were willing to just be what it is, and allowing the characters’ personalities to make it standout, instead of trying to reinvent a genre that already feels like a breath of fresh air in this day and age just by showing up. Knives Out is so busy trying to add twists and turns to the whodunnit genre that much of its middle act loses that whodunnit identity.

Had it stayed the course and focused on Blanc’s interrogations with the Thrombeys and their associates for the entirety of the film, Knives Out could have been something special: a whodunnit with several colorful personalities making the mystery more and more intriguing. Instead, by desperately trying to “subvert expectations,” Knives Out willingly abandons  its best elements just as it gets going. And by the time it picks the pieces back up, most of its characters haven’t developed past what we saw of them in their introductions, a great cast feels underutilized (why wasn’t Jamie Lee Curtis in more of this movie?), and the potential kind of feels wasted.

Knives Out has moments of brilliance, and word has it a Benoit Blanc sequel is already in the works. I can imagine that character being in a great movie, but unfortunately, Knives Out isn’t it. In this day and age, when everyone seems to be believe twists and turns automatically equate to originality and creativity, Knives Out is a reminder that, sometimes, you can better unleash your own creativity and voice if you aren’t trying so hard to reinvent the wheel.

You really don’t have to be Benoit Blanc to figure that out.

 

5

Wizard Dojo’s 2019 (The Whole Dang Year)

Alright, one more dangling thread from 2019 to un-dangle. Y’know, besides those 2019 games I still need to review. Technically, I somewhat did this in my 2019 Christmas post, but for the sake of closure, let’s give it its own post.

After every three month period in 2019, I briefly went over the different reviews I wrote in the year up to that point. Now that 2019 is a memory (a mostly pleasant one, despite all the overrated movies that are now becoming even more overrated with their Oscar nominations). So before we get any further into 2020 and this makes no sense whatsoever, let’s knock this out of the way while it still makes a tiny shred of sense.


I think this was the first year where I ended up writing more movie reviews than video game ones. But because I haven’t actually taken the time to fact-check that, don’t take my word for it.

Anyway, here’s what my reviews were and when they were written, along with the scores they currently hold (you may find I’ve retroactively altered a couple of them, due to my changing feelings upon giving it more thought). This time I included the links to the reviews…just like I did in the Christmas post which is making this feel even more superfluous. Don’t worry, I’ll have new reviews soon.

Titles in bold were released in 2019.

Total Movie Reviews Written in 2019: 40

Total Video Game Reviews Written in 2019: 38

 

January Reviews

MOVIE REVIEWS: 8

Bumblebee – 7/10

From Dusk ‘Till Dawn  – 5/10

Mary Poppins Returns – 6/10

The Cat Returns – 7/10

Ralph Breaks the Internet – 8/10

Unbreakable – 7/10

Split – 6/10

Glass – 3/10

Video Game reviews: 5

Wario Land II – 6/10

The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game – 6/10

Inside – 7/10

Donut County – 7/10

Tetris Effect – 8/10

February Reviews

Movie Reviews: 1

Fighting with My Family – 7/10

 

Video Game reviews: 3

Red Dead Redemption 2 – 8/10

Wario Land 3 – 6/10

God of War (PS4) – 8/10

March Reviews

Movie Reviews: 2

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – 5/10

Captain Marvel – 5/10

VIDEO GAME REVIEWS: 10

Kingdom Hearts 3 – 5/10

Tetris 99 – 7/10

Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove – 7/10

Wario World – 4/10

Sonic the Fighters – 2/10

Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble – 4/10

Tails’ Skypatrol – 2/10

Tails Adventure – 5/10

Sonic R – 2/10

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate – 9/10

April Reviews

movie reviews: 5

Dumbo (2019) – 6/10

Shazam! – 7/10

The Avengers – 8/10

Avengers: Age of Ultron – 5/10

Avengers: Infinity War – 8/10

Video game reviews: 3

Yoshi’s Crafted World – 7/10

Pokemon: Let’s Go Eevee – 5/10

Wario Land 4 – 7/10

May Reviews

MOVIE REVIEWS: 2

Avengers: Endgame – 9/10

Pokemon Detective Pikachu – 6/10

VIDEO GAME REVIEWS: 2

New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe – 7/10

Wario’s Woods – 7/10

June Reviews

MOVIE REVIEWS: 5

Aladdin (2019) – 7/10

Godzilla: King of the Monsters – 6/10

X-Men: Dark Phoenix – 4/10

The Secret Life of Pets 2 -4/10*

The Dark Crystal – 5/10

video game reviews: 1

WarioWare, Inc. Mega Microgames – 7/10

 

July Reviews

Toy Story 4 – 6/10*

Spider-Man: Far From Home – 7/10

video game reviews: 3

Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge  – 4/10

Wario Blast: Featuring Bomberman – 6/10

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong – 6/10

August Reviews

movie reviews: 2

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – 4/10*

The Lion King (2019) – 5/10

video game reviews: 2

Super Mario Maker 2 – 8/10

WarioWare Touched – 6/10

September Reviews

movie reviews: 2

Dora and the Lost City of Gold – 7/10

The Peanut Butter Falcon – 6/10

video game reviews: 2

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night – 8/10

Wario Land: Shake It! – 7/10

October Reviews

Movie reviews: 2

Abominable – 6/10

The Addams Family (2019) – 4/10

video game reviews: 4

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Switch) – 8/10

Untitled Goose Game – 7/10

Wario: Master of Disguise – 3/10

Luigi’s Mansion – 7/10

November Reviews

movie reviews: 4

Maleficent (2014) – 5/10

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil – 5/10

Terminator: Dark Fate – 4/10

Joker – 7/10

video game reviews: 2

Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair – 8/10

Mario & Wario – 6/10

December Reviews

movie reviews: 5

Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace – 5/10

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones – 4/10

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith – 6/10

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – 7/10

Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope – 9/10

video game reviews: 1

WarioWare Twisted – 8/10

 

* indicates a title whose score was lowered since my last such update. Because seriously, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a deathly bore.


And there you have it, all of my movie and game reviews of 2019. But there’s still some unfinished business to take care of leftover from last year. Like these…

 

2019 movies I saw, but probably won’t get around to reviewing for a while (with approximate scores).

Last Christmas – 5/10

Judy – 6/10

 

2019 movies I’ve seen and hope to review in the near future (saving the scores for the reviews)

It: Chapter 2

Jojo Rabbit

Knives Out

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

2019 movies I might still see, maybe review.

1917

Parasite

Cats   (yes, it looks abysmal. Every now and again I get the sick curiosity to see a notorious movie on the big screen).

 

2019 video games I should have reviewed already and hopefully will soon.

Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled

Luigi’s Mansion 3

 

2019 video games I need to play more of to review

Astral Chain

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr’s Journey

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Ni no Kuni Remastered

Pokemon Sword

 

And well, those are the last lingering threads of 2019 I hope to tackle. Those and my awards, of course. There are a few 2020 movies on the horizon, and a couple of upcoming video games, that I’ll hopefully get around to as well. Also more older games and movies and such. But we’ll get to those when we get to them.

Anyway, thanks for reading! Thanks for your support throughout 2019! And all of your support before then, and your continuing support now.

 

Dawn of the New Decade

“Entering the new decade like”

Greetings and salutations, weary traveler! A new decade is upon us, for it is now 2020. If I were a Dark Souls NPC, this is the part where I’d start laughing maniacally.

I know what you’re thinking, “shouldn’t I have posted this on January 1st?” Ideally, yes. But honestly, after my Frozen II review had been delayed for way too long, I knew that had to be my first writing of the decade. It just had to be. As I’ve mentioned numerous times in the past, Frozen is both one of my favorite films, and one of particular importance to me. Thus, because it took me so long to finish my review of its sequel, it made sense as the one and only option as my first writing of the 2020s.

Why not read my Frozen II review again, while we’re on the subject?

If you’re curious what else I have planned for the near future, I… what’s that? You’re not curious…

Well, I’ll tell you anyway.

I hope to finish my reviews of the Star Wars films, continuing in episodic order. I most recently reviewed the original Star Wars feature, Episode IV – A New Hope, which means next up is the best Star Wars feature, The Empire Strikes Back. Then of course I’ll cap off the original trilogy with Return of the Jedi, followed by 2015’s delightful return to form, The Force Awakens. It’s just a shame they stopped making Star Wars films after that. But at least they went out on a high note, I suppose…

… Okay, okay. I’ll review The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker as well. *Sigh*

Along with those, I also plan on reviewing Knives Out, another Rian Johnson film that, like The Last Jedi, seems to believe that swerves and twists for the sake of swerves and twists equate to originality and creativity. Apparently Mr. Johnson isn’t aware that M. Night Shyamalan has already proven on numerous occasions that isn’t the case. Oh please, don’t make me re-watch Glass!

 

Yeah, apparently I got a lot of Friends gifs…

Anyway, I also have a list of games to review, so hopefully I’ll start knocking those off said list soon enough. Mostly leftover 2019 games, but some older ones as well.

In fact, I have a schedule that I hope to stick to for 2020 in regards to the number of movie reviews, game reviews and top 10 lists per month. Fingers crossed I follow through!

As you may have guessed, with the new year comes award season. Everyone and their dog seems to do it, and I am no exception. I plan on doing my best of 2019 lists in not too long (I hope). But also seeing as we’re in a bright, shiny new decade, I also hope to do some ‘Best of the Decade’ awards reflecting on the movies and video games of the 2010s. And maybe that will lead me to make retroactive decade lists for the 2000s and 1990s. Maybe even the 1980s as well, seeing as I was born during that decade. Yeah, I was born in September of ’89, so we’re grasping at straws here, but any excuse to revisit 80s movies is a good one, I say. Funny thing is the 80s really stick out to me with movies, while the 90s really stick out in regards to video games. I don’t know why I pointed that out, but I thought it was interesting.

Oh yeah, and one of my New Year’s resolutions is to finally make reviewing TV shows a thing. So again, fingers crossed.

I’m hoping to review the three currently-existing seasons of Stranger Things, as well as The Mandalorian, Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, and maybe some others. Also, now that I have Disney+, maybe I’ll start reviewing The Simpsons. But just the classic seasons. I don’t know if I could stand to watch the more contemporary seasons. I would rather watch Glass again than watch new Simpsons.

Well… actually I’m not sure about that. That’s a lose-lose scenario if ever there were one. But yeah, classic Simpsons is still on the cards.

At any rate, this “New Decade Post” is coming dangerously close to becoming one of my filler posts that haunted 2019, so let’s wrap this up before that happens.

Anywho, I hope you lovely people are all having a great, productive new year so far. May the new decade be one of great new beginnings and some cool returning stuff, I guess. Hopefully the next time I’m writing a blog like this, it’s updating my progress on learning about makin’ the vidya James.

Frozen II Review

When Frozen was released in 2013, Disney had no idea what they had. What seemed to be planned as simply the “two princesses” Disney movie – with most of the marketing focusing on the comic relief – ended up being a worldwide phenomenon the likes of which Disney Animation hadn’t seen before. Disney found themselves unable to keep up with the demand for the merchandise surrounding the film, its songs instantly became iconic, and fans – adults and children alike – would dress up as the characters. It was a pop culture landmark whose impact was more akin to the likes of Star Wars than a Disney animated film.

It was an earned reputation as well. Frozen was a terrific movie that gained its popularity organically. Audiences fell in love with it, and through word of mouth, it continued to grow. Frozen became the highest-grossing animated film of all time, its characters quickly became some of the most beloved in cinema history, and it connected with audiences around the world (being particularly popular in Japan).The world couldn’t get enough of it.

Making a sequel seemed to be an inevitability on Disney’s part, but thankfully, the studio didn’t simply churn one out as quickly as possible. While other animation studios these days green light multiple sequels immediately after a decent opening weekend, Disney didn’t pull the trigger on a sequel to its biggest homegrown hit for well over a year, and even then, it didn’t officially begin production until a few years thereafter.

After over six years with only two short films to tide audiences over, Frozen II has finally become a reality. Thankfully, it’s a sequel that’s well worth the wait. Frozen II brings back the iconic characters and provides musical numbers as beautifully infectious as those of the original, while simultaneously setting itself apart from its predecessor in some incredibly bold ways.

Frozen II is set three years after the original, though its opening moments take us back to Anna and Elsa’s childhood, where their father, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) tells the princesses how he became the king of Arendelle. When he was a young boy, Agnarr travelled with his father to an enchanted forest found far north of Arendelle. The forest was home to the spirits of nature: earth, fire, wind and water. This forest also served as the home of the Northuldra people, who lived in harmony with the magic of the forest. Under orders of the king, Arendelle constructed a mighty dam in the forest as a gift of peace for the Northuldra people. But the celebration was short-lived. During the festivities, something went wrong, and a battle broke out between the people of Arendelle and the Northuldra. During the fighting, the former king of Arendelle was sent plummeting off a cliff, while Agnarr was knocked unconscious.

The spirits, angered by the fighting, sealed off the forest with an impenetrable fog, and went into a deep slumber, thus trapping everyone already inside the forest, and preventing anyone else from entering. Luckily for Agnarr, a “mysterious voice” rescued him from the forest before the fog fell. He then returned to Arendelle as its new king. Agnarr ends his tale by warning Anna and Elsa that the spirits of the forest could reawaken, and should that happen, to expect the unexpected.

Fast-forward to the present (three years after the first film, and six years after Anna and Elsa’s parents died at sea). Elsa (Idea Menzel) is now the beloved queen of Arendelle, while her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) is its equally-beloved princess. One day, out of the blue, Elsa begins hearing a mysterious voice calling out to her. The same mysterious voice that rescued her father all those years ago. The voice seems to have a connection to Elsa’s magical ice powers, as she is the only soul in the kingdom who can hear it.

As the voice persists to haunt Elsa, it eventually draws out an inner power within her, and Elsa ends up reawakening the spirits of the enchanted forest. This results in a bit of chaos in Arendelle, with all traces of fire and water vanishing from the kingdom, while the movement of the earth and a powerful wind force all of Arendelle’s residents out of the kingdom. The citizens of Arendelle (or “Arendellians” as we learn) take refuge with the magical trolls, whom inform Elsa that she must travel to the enchanted forest, calm the spirits of nature and uncover the secrets of the past in order to restore peace to her kingdom.

Anna, ever the adventurer and always willing to stand by her sister, accompanies Elsa on her journey, as does Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and lovable snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), who now has a permafrost body to prevent him from melting. Lead by Kristoff’s reindeer-drawn sled (good ol’ Sven has to be involved as well), the group make their way to the enchanted forest, where Elsa’s magic allows them to penetrate the fog to enter the woods. But the group quickly realize they can’t get back out unless Elsa accomplishes her mission and permanently frees the forest.

While the characters are as endlessly likable as ever, and the film remains a musical, Frozen II is a very different movie from its predecessor. Not only does it meld into action-adventure territory, but it also takes on a darker, more mature tone (while younger children can still very much enjoy it, Frozen II seems to acknowledge that the kids who watched the original are now six years older, and the narrative has fittingly grown up alongside them). While the first film may have been a fairy tale, Frozen II doubles down on fantasy logic in both its narrative and world-building.

At first glance, these elements may make Frozen II seem alienating to fans of the original. But by being so radically different from its predecessor (while still, of course, retaining the characters we all grew to love), Frozen II is not only following the path of all the best sequels, but is actually the perfect kind of follow-up the original Frozen could have asked for.

Frozen has become so popular and so engrained in pop culture over the years, that we might actually forget why it gained that status in the first place. Frozen was all about bucking trends. It celebrated the things we love about Disney movies, while dismantling the cliches and outdated elements. It turned Disney archetypes into fleshed-out characters, who dictated the direction of the story, instead of being directed by it.

Disney could have gone the easy route with this sequel, and simply repeated the same beats as the original. It would have been easy money, to be sure. But by going in a very different direction narratively and tonally, it’s not only a brave, intelligent sequel, but it’s also – in a roundabout way – keeping in spirit with its predecessor by being different than it.

Sequels so often get derided for being “more of the same,” but Frozen II should be viewed as one of those rare sequels that justifies the artistic merits of franchises. Just because we’re revisiting a familiar world and characters doesn’t mean we can’t be given new stories. And Frozen II very much provides us with a different story.

Admittedly, this sequel is a bit more plot-focused than the original’s character-driven narrative, with the opening moments delivering the necessary exposition, but this isn’t an inherently negative thing. The only issue is that after we get the backstory with Agnarr retelling the events of the enchanted forest to Anna and Elsa, we immediately enter the brunt of the plot with Elsa beginning to hear ‘the voice’ as soon as we’re reintroduced to her. It’s not a big deal, and the film definitely delivers more than a few great character moments, but the story may have benefitted further if we got a few such moments before jumping into the plot. But that may be my love of the original film and its structure talking.

The characters are as likable as ever. Anna and Elsa remain Disney’s strongest lead characters, and Frozen II still wisely puts them and their sisterhood at the heart of the story, albeit in a very different way than the first film. While the original had Anna in the protagonist’s role trying to connect with Elsa – who more or less filled the role of antagonist – here both sisters are on the adventure together. This allows the film to showcase their interactions more, which brings more out of both characters.

Olaf still serves as the film’s primary comic foil, but again, in a different way than what the first film did with the character. In the original, Olaf was determined to experience Summer, being gleefully naive to how the hot Summer weather would affect a snowman such as himself. Here, Olaf’s character arc is all about growing up. Being the de facto ‘kid’ character of the lot, Olaf is – in his own words – dealing with “the increasing complexity of thought that comes with maturity.” While Olaf’s newfound inquisitiveness is mostly played for laughs, it does echo the film’s overall themes of maturity.

Kristoff does admittedly get something of the short-end of the stick in the storyline, but I suppose not everyone can get the same time in the spotlight. Kristoff’s story arc this time around is his attempt to work up the courage to propose to Anna, with every such attempt falling apart in one way or another. It’s a fun sub-plot, and it does get to showcase Kristoff’s character (including giving him a proper musical number all to himself, after Jonathan Groff got shortchanged in that area in the first film), but he is left out of most of the film’s third act.

Another great thing about Frozen II is how it handles its returning characters. It’s often easy for sequels to turn their characters into exaggerations or parodies of themselves, or to seemingly hit a reset button and undo the developments their characters went through in their first go-around. But Frozen II instead enriches the key players of its franchise. The film acknowledges how the the characters have grown from the events of the first film, while also staying true to their personalities.

Elsa, for example, may no longer be ruled by the fear of her powers, and is now willing to embrace the world and people around her. But Elsa still has a solemn and melancholic aspect to her, and still showcases a vulnerability and social awkwardness that is unique in movies, Disney or otherwise. Anna, meanwhile, is more worldly after everything she went through in the first film, but she’s still a bit naive when it comes to personal interactions (which humorously plays into Kristoff’s fumbling proposal attempts). This character growth goes back to what makes Frozen II such a special sequel: it doesn’t try to simply replicate the original, but instead builds upon it.

There are a few new characters introduced once the story enters the enchanted forest, the most prominent of which being Lieutenant Mattias (Sterling K. Brown), a Lieutenant who served Arendelle under Anna and Elsa’s grandfather who has been trapped in the forest ever since that fateful day. Another commendable aspect of Frozen II is how it so easily avoids the pitfall of so many animated sequels of overemphasizing new characters at the expense of the returning ones. The new characters who are present in Frozen II help enrich the world and story of the film, but they all play the roles they need to without overstaying their welcome, as opposed to needlessly playing roles that are already covered by the established characters (no talking sporks or swashbuckling cats in this sequel).

Frozen II is a visual wonder. While the first Frozen showcased snowy landscapes, Frozen II’s setting of the Northuldra forest is drenched in an Autumn pallete. There are a lot more Earthy-colored environments this time around, while Elsa’s ice powers, as well as the purple flames that emanate from the Fire Spirit, keep the hues of the original film intact. Between its gorgeous environments and many magical happenings, Frozen II is an astonishingly beautiful film. And much like the story itself, the art direction and settings distinguish this sequel from its predecessor. There’s not a moment in Frozen II that doesn’t look like a work of art.

The voice cast is every bit as enjoyable as they were in the first film, and remains among the best vocal cast of any animated feature. Josh Gad provides charm and warmth to Olaf without making him too cutesy. Jonathan Groff gives Kristoff heart and humor. And most notably, Kristen Bell and Idena Menzel are perfect in the roles of Anna and Elsa. Bell has a unique combination of heroism and innocents to her performance that brings Anna to life, while Idena Menzel’s unrivaled ability to capture both vulnerability and raw power in her voice make her the one and only person who could’ve voiced a character as unique as Elsa.

Also new to the cast is Evan Rachel Wood as Anna and Elsa’s mother, Queen Iduna. Though her role is primarily in the film’s opening flashback, she proves to be another stellar addition to the Frozen cast.

That brings us to Frozen II’s songwork. Frozen II is the first musical sequel in the entire Disney canon (those straight-to-video cash-grabs of the 90s and early-naughts were created by third-rate subsidiaries of Disney). As such, Frozen II had a unique uphill battle. Making a sequel to a beloved film is a difficult enough endeavor in itself, but how do you follow-up something like Let It Go?

I’m happy to say that, somehow, songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez have done the impossible and created a selection of songs that match those of the original film. The songs of Frozen II vary wildly, from its opening lullaby sung by Queen Iduna (“All is Found”) to an 80s power ballad (Kristoff’s aforementioned musical number, “Lost in the Woods”). Every major character gets a new song, all of them catchy and infectious in the best way. We even get an ensemble (“Some Things Never Change”). And perhaps knowing that recreating Let It Go simply wouldn’t be  possible, Frozen II avoids having to deal with said comparison by giving Elsa two musical numbers, thus making them more likely to be compared to each other, as opposed to their indelible predecessor. While all of the songs of Frozen II are great, it’s no surprise that Idena Menzel’s vocals make both of Elsa’s songs (“Into the Unknown” and “Show Yourself“) the biggest highlights.

As a fan of the original film, I was excited for Frozen II, but admittedly a little cautious. How exactly could Disney (or anyone) make a worthy follow-up to a film that was such a pleasant surprise to begin with? It turns out any such cautions were misplaced. Frozen II retains the spirit of the beloved original, and much like said original differentiated itself from Disney traditions, Frozen II differentiates itself from its predecessor. The beloved characters and terrific songwork return, but the story, its structure and its tone are unique to itself.

Frozen II is an ideal sequel, then. One that creates a wonderful continuation to the stories of the characters audiences have grown to love, while telling a story of its own. Frozen II is the best sequel of recent years, and is such a strong and unique film of its own that I find this to be a rare instance of me wanting to see where Anna, Elsa and company can go next with a third chapter in their story.

Frozen II could have been an easy sequel that road the coattails of the original. Instead, Frozen II follows its own advice, venturing into the unknown to create the best animated sequel since Toy Story 2. Frozen has become so endearing that we can’t – ironically enough – let it go.

The 2019 Christmas Special/Five Year Anniversary Celebration!!

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone! How about that Rise of Skywalker, huh?

It’s hard to believe that 2019 is coming to a close, and with it, the decade itself. Mayhaps I should start doing some ‘Best of the Decade’ awards along with my yearly ones?

But let’s think about that a little later. It’s Christmas, holmes! And being Christmas Day, that also means – you guessed it – it’s WWE wrestler Rusev’s birthday!

Oh yeah, it also means it’s the anniversary of Wizard Dojo’s launch!

Okay, so technically I launched this website earlier in December of 2014, but decided to wait to post anything until Christmas Day of that year. So Christmas is the official launch of the Dojo. And this year is a big one, as today marks the five-year anniversary of Wizard Dojo! You know, five years. As in half a decade.

So let’s try to make this Christmas/Anniversary special a good one!

So pull yourself away from those new Playstations Santa Clause brought you for a few minutes, grab some hot cocoa, a Victorian-era top hat, and take a seat to spend your precious time on this sacred holiday not with family and friends, but reading the crap I write. ‘Tis the season.

So let’s get crackin’ and get this show on the road!

Continue reading “The 2019 Christmas Special/Five Year Anniversary Celebration!!”

WarioWare Twisted Review

One of Nintendo’s defining traits is their unrivaled ability to showcase the merits that are exclusive to the video game medium. While other developers and publishers seem hellbent on bringing the world of Hollywood into the video game fold, Nintendo has always understood that the real poetry of video games is in their gameplay. Mario and Zelda (rightfully) get the most praise for this, but perhaps the Nintendo franchise that expresses Nintendo’s game design philosophy in its most literal sense is WarioWare.

The WarioWare series strips away all the bells and whistles of gaming, and reduces it to its bare-bone basics. By throwing multitudes of ‘micro-games’ at players – each one requiring minimal movement and button presses – WarioWare is a showcase of gameplay concepts at their most simple. It’s as beautiful as it is absurd.

There’s perhaps no better entry in the WarioWare series than WarioWare Twisted. Released on the Gameboy Advance in 2005, Twisted put a unique spin on the series’ formula: motion controls.

While most other WarioWare sequels have capitalized on their respective hardware by weaving the quirks of Nintendo’s consoles into the series’ formula, Twisted instead had unique functionality of its own. With a built-in ‘gyrosensor,’ WarioWare Twisted allowed players to interact with its micro-games by moving, tilting and flipping your GameBoy Advance.

You know how in movies and TV shows when someone is supposed to be playing a video game, but the actor clearly doesn’t know what they’re doing and is just moving the controller around like a madman? WarioWare Twisted has player’s actually doing that in order to play the game. In typical WarioWare fashion, Twisted provides innovative gameplay at the price of making the player look like an idiot while playing it. What could be more ‘Wario’ than that?

A year before the Nintendo Wii brought motion-controls to the mainstream, WarioWare Twisted brought a different kind of motion control to the table. While many of Twisted’s micro-games will still require a press of the A button or D-pad, most of them require the player to move the GameBoy Advance around in order to effect what’s happening on screen. It makes for a game that’s easy to pick up and play, while providing all the charm and hilarity you could ask for in a Nintendo title.

Can you think of another game that requires the player to move the entire system left and right in order to shave a man’s stubble? I didn’t think so. There are so many fun and funny ideas at play in WarioWare Twisted at every turn. If you can play it and somehow not get a goofy grin on your face or let out a chuckle, you must have a heart of stone.

There are micro-games that have you flipping the GBA upside down so a man’s toupee falls off, or that have you tilting the Gameboy Advance to its side so you can slide a man his drink (but tilt too fast and the drink spills). There are games that have you twirling the system so a key falls out of a giant keyring, or to make a platform move so a frog can land on it. Not all of the micro-games are winners (such as one where you have to pay attention to which of two hands is holding a coin, with the motion controls only being used to highlight which hand to select), but the ones that are, shall we say “not-so-great” are in shorter supply.

The game features a variety of modes, with the “story” being spread out between different characters. Each character works as their own stage, with their own set of micro-games that follow different rules (some might require light motion-controls, while another character’s might have you going all-out with them). You have four chances to make it to the ‘boss’ micro-game which, after completed the first time, will allow you to move onto the next character. After a character’s stage has been completed, you can replay them and go through more and more micro-games to try and best your high score as the games continue to pick up speed. You can also play a mode that allows you to select a single micro-game to play on repeat, again getting faster and tougher after every few rounds.

The more you play the different modes, the more goodies you can unlock. Some of these unlockables include music tracks from the game, while others will be goofy trinkets that display the game’s motion controls even further, albeit in minuscule ways (for example, you can unlock a marionette, which you can then move about by tilting the GBA to pull his strings).

It’s all a bit silly and mindless, but that’s kind of the appeal of WarioWare. It strips the very concept of video games down to its bare essentials, then runs wild with them in as many crazy ways as it can think of. WarioWare is both a celebration and a parody of its own medium, and that’s perhaps never been better displayed in the series than it is here in Twisted.

Aesthetically, the game still looks and sounds great for a Gameboy Advance title. Twisted wisely uses its many micro-games to experiment with various visual styles, and this is one of the few GBA titles I can think of that had good enough sound quality to feature a song with lyrics (“Mona Pizza” which has since gained fame for its uses in the Super Smash Bros. series).

It is a bit of a shame to admit that WarioWare Twisted can be a difficult game to find these days. Notably, it never even saw a release in Europe, due to the gyro sensor in the cartridge containing mercury. And its unique control scheme means it has yet to see a re-release on a subsequent Nintendo console.

Let’s hope one day Nintendo finds a way to adapt Twisted onto contemporary hardware. Until then, if you still have a Gameboy Advance handy, WarioWare Twisted is more than worth the trouble of tracking down. And if you don’t have a Gameboy Advance, Twisted remains a great reason to get one.

 

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Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope Review

*Caution! This review contains spoilers for not only A New Hope, but the entire original Star Wars trilogy. But seriously, if you don’t know the plot of Star Wars, particularly THIS Star Wars, I don’t know what to tell you.*

Star Wars – retroactively known as ‘Episode IV – A New Hope’ is the most famous movie ever made. That may sound hyperbolic, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that statement. Sure, there are other iconic films like The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca or Gone with the Wind that put up their own arguments to the claim. But I think, in the end, the very first Star Wars feature wins out. It has as indelible place in movie history as any of those films, plus it has had an additional impact on pop culture (and just culture in general) that the others couldn’t hope to attain. Ever since its release in 1977, Star Wars has changed the way movies are made (much to the chagrin of more prudish types who seem to take offense at the idea of people wanting movies to be fun). By combining fantasies and fairy tales with a science-fiction setting, and adding elements of classic movie genres like westerns and samurai films, George Lucas created a movie that ended up being more than a movie. Between the impact it made on filmmakers and audiences, the influence it’s had on pop culture and media, the dedication its created towards its mythology, and the longevity it has had in all the above categories, Star Wars is in a league all its own. While many of the edits and alterations George Lucas has made to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope since its original release may remain polarizing, the film itself has held up incredibly well all these years later.

Taking place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” Star Wars weaved a rich mythology into a coming-of-age hero’s journey. The story centers around a young farm boy named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who lives on the desert planet Tatooine with his aunt and uncle.

Meanwhile, a great conflict rages across the galaxy. The tyrannical Galactic Empire has constructed the Death Star, a space station with the power to destroy entire planets. The Rebel Alliance has managed to retrieve the plans for the Empire’s new super weapon, which are in the hands of Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). But Leia’s ship is quickly boarded by Imperial Stormtroopers – lead by the wicked cyborg Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) – so the princess entrusts the plans to a little droid named R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). R2, along with the panicked and uptight protocol droid C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels) evacuate the ship via an escape pod, while Vader and his forces take Leia hostage to uncover what happened to their stolen Death Star plans.

The duo of droids end up on the planet of Tatooine where they are taken by hooded scavengers called Jawas, who ultimately sell the droids to the uncle of Luke Skywalker. When Luke uncovers a hidden message from Princess Leia within R2-D2 requesting the aid of an ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’, Luke begins to suspect there’s something more to these droids than meets the eye.

R2-D2 soon runs away in search of Obi-Wan Kenobi, with Luke and C3-P0 in pursuit. During their search for the droid, Luke is attacked by Tusken Raiders, who are then scared off by a hooded figure before they can do any more harm. When Luke comes to, this figure is revealed to be Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness), who then tells Luke about his history with Luke’s father (though he may leave out a few key details).

Obi-Wan tells Luke that his father, Anakin Skywalker, was once a great Jedi Knight. Under Obi-Wan’s tutelage, Anakin became powerful in the ways of the Force (“a mysterious energy field created by all living things”). But another pupil of Obi-Wan’s, Darth Vader, was seduced by the dark side of the Force, betrayed and murdered Luke’s father, and has become a servant of the Emperor.

Luke soon discovers in horror that during his absence, Imperial troopers – searching for the droids and the stolen Death Star plans – have murdered his aunt and uncle. With no family left, Luke decides to accompany Obi-Wan on his quest to save Princess Leia and learn the ways of the Force to become a Jedi Knight like his father.

“By combining the “friendly giant” archetype with, well, a dog, Chewbacca instantly became one of the most beloved characters.”

Luke, Obi-Wan and the droids search for a pilot to take them to their destination in one of the film’s most iconic scenes (the Mos Eisley Cantina, whose many alien patrons made it the best “look at all these wild creature designs” moment in movie history up until Hayao Miyazaki took us into the bathhouse of Spirited Away). They find such a pilot in a smuggler by the name of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his co-pilot, a ‘Wookie’ named Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). The group then departs for Leia’s home planet of Alderaan, only to make the horrifying discovery that the entire planet has been destroyed by the Empire. Their quest then takes them aboard the Death Star itself, where Princess Leia is being held captive by Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing).

Honestly, the storyline needs no introduction. Star Wars (more specifically, A New Hope) has become so iconic in pop culture and the public conscious, that even on the off chance you somehow haven’t actually seen it, you still know it.

When it was released in 1977, Star Wars completely changed the game. Audiences had seen nothing like it. From its revolutionary visual effects, original take on mythology, sweeping score, and refreshingly innocent imagination (films of the 1960s and most of the ’70s were predominantly grim and defeatist), it was an entertainment spectacle like no other.

A number of critics, cinephiles, and even filmmakers often ridicule Star Wars for “ruining” the movies. In actuality, the exact opposite is true. The ‘New Hollywood’ generation had their day in the sun, and though George Lucas was a product of that generation, it was his creation that allowed cinema to move forward and branch out. While there’s nothing wrong with artsy and auteur films, one can’t help but deduce that the reason the ‘arthouse’ crowd deride Star Wars and its ilk (other than to give themselves a false sense of superiority for going against the mainstream) is because their preferred style of cinema lost its dominant power because of it. They had their time on top, but couldn’t accept when times changed.

Indeed, Star Wars was that change. Perhaps most interesting of all in this scenario is that, despite the fact that Star Wars singlehandedly created the tent-pole film and made merchandizing movies a thing, Star Wars was still very much created with an auteurist approach. Star Wars was the product of George Lucas’s imagination, and with the visual designs fleshed out by concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, the film was built from the ground-up from the filmmaker’s vision. But, y’know, it’s fun and it’s in space and there’s magic, so I guess it doesn’t count as art. It’s just timeless for no reason, evidently.

In all seriousness, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope has earned its iconic status. Again, its critics say it’s all about the visual effects, but while it’s true that said visual effects were the most revolutionary in all of cinema up to that point (perhaps they still are), that’s a narrow-minded view of things. The real reason Star Wars has endured is because of its aforementioned innocents.

By combining mythology and fairy tales with science fiction, cowboys and samurai, George Lucas created a fantasy world that not only appealed to children, but to people in general. Like any great work of fantasy, Star Wars bypasses age and cultural barriers, and touches on human emotion in simple but powerful ways through the imagination. The more prudish side of cinema would do well for itself to wizen up and accept that just because something “isn’t realistic” doesn’t mean it can’t be affecting on a very real level. Star Wars is as inspiring as it is entertaining.

That’s not to say that A New Hope is perfect, however, Some of the acting can be kind of cheesy, particularly by the three leads. While it’s commendable that George Lucas sought to hire ‘unknowns’ for his main characters (Hamill and Fisher were brand new, while Ford had worked with Lucas previously on American Graffiti, though he was still a newer talent at the time), the inexperience of the leads is more than a little noticeable at times. That may sound harsh today, given how everyone involved became a household name because of the film. But it’s also no secret that very few people involved with Star Wars’s production had any real high hopes for this ‘kids’ sci-fi movie,’ and that included its actors.

Whether it was the inexperience of the actors, their lack of faith in the material, or a combination thereof, there are more than a few moments where their acting is a little – shall we say – “lacking.” Thankfully, by the time The Empire Strikes Back came around, the actors had found their footing, and the unprecedented success of Star Wars meant those involved took things a lot more seriously.

That’s not to say that the acting is utterly horrible in A New Hope (this isn’t the prequels), with Alec Guiness serving as an anchor that helps keep the film grounded (Guiness being the only well-established actor among the heroes of the film, which is appropriate given the character). James Earl Jones’s voice work needs no explanation for its commanding presence, and Peter Cushing easily makes Govenor Tarkin an unflinchingly evil villain. Perhaps the most under appreciated of the lot is Anthony Daniels, who from the get-go made C3-P0 one of cinema’s great comic foils.

If there’s any other source of fault with A New Hope it’s – somewhat uniquely – not anything to do with how the film was made, but in the many unnecessary ways its been edited over the years.

In 1997, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the franchise, George Lucas released the ‘Special Editions’ of the trilogy, which featured added computer-generated effects into the films. Lucas claims that the technology that came about in the years since A New Hope’s original release gave him the opportunity to “fully realize his vision” for the films. But in execution, most of these edits feel like needless bloat that exist for the hell of it. And these edits didn’t stop in 1997, but have continued through subsequent DVD and blu-ray releases. Even now on Disney+, the film has received a minor new edit to an already heavily-edited scene (an edit that Lucas had originally planned for the film’s 3D theatrical release, before the plans for such releases were scrapped).

The scene in question is of course the notorious “Han shot first” moment. For those unfamiliar, the scene sees Han Solo held at gunpoint by the Rodian bounty hunter Greedo. In the film’s original cut, Han Solo shoots Greedo before the latter has a chance to pull his trigger. But in the many re-edits, the film has been altered to have Greedo shoot first (thus making Han shoot in self-defense), and later having both shoot at the same time. Because reasons.

It sounds like a minor issue, but it does have repercussions for Han Solo’s overall story arc in the original trilogy. Lucas claims having Han shoot first makes him look like a cold-blooded killer (which wouldn’t necessarily be true, considering Greedo definitely intends to kill him). But at this point, Han Solo is a smuggler on the run from mobsters. He’s a rogue. He isn’t supposed to be a true blue hero (if Luke were put in this situation, we’d have an entirely different story). That’s why as the series progresses and Han does become more heroic, it shows a great sense of character growth.

That’s not to mention that George Lucas contradicted his own reasoning when he made the prequel trilogy. Naturally, the prequels told the story of Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader, turning him into a more tragic figure and ultimately making his redemption in Return of the Jedi more impactful.

The problem is, in the prequels, there are at least two instances when Anakin commits an unforgivable evil by murdering children. I don’t care if Vader’s last act in life is killing an evil sorcerer-dictator to save his son, if he killed children, that’s unforgivable. Meanwhile, Han shoots a guy who had the full intent on shooting him. It may not be heroic, but Han’s path towards enlightenment is a lot easier to swallow than Vader’s. So who knows why the edits have persisted after all these years.

I’m rambling a bit. The point is many of these ‘Special Edition’ edits have retroactively cheapened certain aspects of the series. Another instance is a previously deleted scene involving Jabba the Hut. When the scene was filmed, a human actor was portraying Jabba, but after the scene was cut and Return of the Jedi eventually established Jabba as a grotesque slug monster, the scene was re-inserted into the film with the original actor replaced by a CG Jabba. I can understand why Lucas may have wanted to experiment with the scene for the 1997 release, but it is kind of a shame it’s now just become a permanent part of the film, as it robs Jabba’s character of his mystique. Originally, the character was only mentioned in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, before Return of the Jedi finally revealed him as the loathsome mess of a creature that he is. It’s kind of sad knowing that generations of Star Wars fans haven’t experienced that build-up, instead being introduced to the character with his abrupt and unceremonious entrance in the largely unnecessary scene here (or in his equally unnecessary role in The Phantom Menace).

I suppose those are the majorly disappointing edits, with the rest mostly just being needless special effects (“Dewbacks! A rock in front of R2-D2! CG background droids!”). Though perhaps another example – and possibly one last middle finger by George Lucas before the Disney buyout – was the altered sound Obi-Wan makes to scare away Tusken Raiders. It’s intended to be the roar of a creature called a ‘Krayt Dragon,’ and in the original cut it indeed sounded like a roar. But ever since the 2011 blu-ray release, it sounds more akin to Ric Flair being sucked into a vortex. It’s just goofy.

Still, even with the most egregious of these edits, none of them truly take away from what a special film A New Hope is. The original special effects that are still present have held up shockingly well, the story is timeless, the characters – though archetypal – are given well-defined personalities and remain iconic. But it’s probably the sheer imagination of it all – from its mythology that so effortlessly weaves together so many different elements, to its childlike sense of wonderment – that has probably made Star Wars endure above anything else.

There are timeless movies, but only a handful of them can be so confidently described as such without a second thought. In many ways, Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope may be at the very top of that shortlist.

 

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