Dead Cells (2018)

You don’t often see games these days that do something new on the first try and utterly succeed. Not that Dead Cells is entirely made from new stuff, it’s at best described as a roguevania, taking inspirations from the castlevania-side of the metroidvania genre with its bigger focus on pure combat and different weapons types and slight RPG-like elements. The only other game where the genre-moniker roguevania applies is Rogue Legacy, and its an entirely different game.

Sure, both are about entering a castle full of enemies where certain elements are randomized, both items as well as the level structure (although Dead Cells has parts of each level that are fixed, which is especially noticeable if you play it a lot). But where Rogue Legacy’s controls are kinda floaty (depending on the abilities of your current character) Dead Cells controls are perfect and snappy. Your character has exactly the right amount of weight, heft and momentum to feel just perfect. Every attack, parry, counterattack, jump is perfectly balanced to make you feel utterly in control of your character.

This is basically what every 2d-game or platformer aspires to do, but few manage to hit that sweet spot of being really in control as Dead Cells does. Which also means, if something goes wrong, it always feels like it was an error on your part and not because the game was unfair or put you in a situation you couldn’t have dealt with. Dying in the game, failing to do something means just that you strive to do it better the next time, not that you’re put off by a game dealing you a bad hand.

And while the game is a lot about collecting cells to unlock new items and abilities between each level, the real growth in the game comes from learning how to deal with enemies, when to back down or attack from afar or just when to avoid them, which is very much in line with the roguelike genre. Dead Cells isn’t a roguelike, but like other roguelites, it really has that aspect covered. I still remember how weak and pathetic I felt at my first attempt to get anywhere in the game and how impossible some of the bosses felt, only to realize after playing a lot and understanding good builds just how simple and easy some of them were to beat, at least on the lowest difficulty.

With training and patience, everybody could beat the game on normal difficulty, but then you get your first and maybe even second boss cell and the difficulty ramps up massively. There’s one extra level and a true boss that most will never see because you have to get five boss cells to even enter that, and honestly getting there is almost impossibly hard. That said, the core game with the normal boss offers already enough variety and content to not get too salty over how hard it is to get to the secret final level and boss.

So what’s really new in Dead Cells is how all those aspects come together to form something that feels fresh and new. A rogue-lite with a metroidvania influence to unlock new paths through its various levels that also evokes the combat scheme of castlevania with various weapon types having entirely different reaches and response times and general handling. And the combat doesn’t just feel like a win button, but really requires some skills to beat the bosses or even reach them.

The game like a lot of roguelites is also pretty addictive, both because the combat feels just so satisfying and there’s just so much stuff to see and unlock, from new enemies to new weapons types that open utterly new strategies to new abilities. And the visuals are also pretty damn great. Overall, one of the best games I played in recent years that offers something few others games do (there are a lot of roguelites these days, but far fewer are 2d-action games and none of them is even close to being as good as Dead Cells).

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

The third John Wick movie is one of those where I enjoyed my time with it quite a lot despite its obvious flaws until the ending arrived. The first movie was a simple action flick but felt fresh and new in just how it managed to use seemingly tired tropes. The second felt more perfunctory despite offering a lot of the same stuff in a slightly less tight package. The third one does something similar, only it ends on a cliffhanger and it’s too obvious that the whole movie is padded almost everywhere so that it doesn’t have to tell the whole story in one sitting, and it really annoyed me.

There are movies where ending on a cliffhanger works, but John Wick is not one of those. Yes, the 2nd movie also left open the possibility for a sequel, but it told one main story from beginning to end. The third part is just the opening gambit in a bigger war and will leave you resolutely unsatisfied.

Story-wise, from the moment the 1st and the 2nd movie started you knew what John Wick’s motivation was. Revenge for his dog and doing one last mission. The 3rd part ends with him trying to survive, but few of his actions seem to make a lot of sense until we find out he’s on a quest to meet the higher lord of the assassin organization to ask for redemption, which seems so unlike him.

But what makes even less sense are the developments closer to the end, Winston gets threatened by the high table, John agrees to help him, then Winston turns on him close to the end that feels like the writers had written themselves into a corner and just pulled stupid plot moments out of a hat. It doesn’t help that the combat that seemed so fresh and exciting in the first movie feels slow and somewhat rote here. John Wick looking tired all the time is part and parcel for the series, but here’s it’s actor Keanu Reeves who looks tired as well, not just the role he’s playing.

And then the movie ends halfway into the conflict with the high table. A better movie would have managed to tell the whole conflict with the high table in one movie, or at least would have managed to find a more satisfying way to finish. Instead, we get a TV-ending basically asking us for the next season. We probably get a fourth part, and I really hope they will finish the whole story then and don’t give us another stupid cliffhanger.

Oh yeah, the big secondary villain here, the strongest fighter working for the high table feels more like an elaborate joke (a fan of John Wick who can’t hide his giddy excitement meeting and killing his hero) than a truly fearsome enemy. Not that the 1st or 2nd part had any villains who could hold a candle to Wick’s fighting prowess, but at least they made sense in terms of story-telling, instead here the sushi-master/ninja-master who looks up to Wick or his mistress the unshakeable adjudicator from the high table never feel like characters and more like a caricatures.

All that said, it’s still a solid movie, it’s just sad to see how the quality of each John Wick sequel has decreased to the point the movies feel more in love with their own image of being GREAT action movies instead of actually being good action movies.

Good Omens (2019)

I heard good things about the adaption of the novel written by both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and while I remember not really liking the novel much when I read it years ago, I checked it out to see how the TV version would compare. At the same time as I started to watch the adaptation, I also started to reread the novel, just to see whether my original opinion would stand or had to be revised.

The result was that I stopped with the show 3 episodes in and neither managed to finish the reread. My opinion on the book hasn’t changed, it’s an okay read that manages to play against the strengths of either author and jumps far too much around between various characters to really establish a strong, main viewpoint character to hold my interest.

The show, on the other hand, failed for different reasons. The two actors playing an angel and a devil working together to save Earth from a final heaven-hell conflict are great and a lot of fun to watch, but the kids especially the devil’s child Adam is seriously miscast (or maybe they didn’t have anyone better) and with Adam having to carry a large part of the narrative, it just didn’t work. He neither had the charisma nor the acting capabilities his role required and this made all the parts with the kids hard to enjoy.

My Hero Academia: Two Heroes (2018)

Set between the 2nd and 3rd season of the series, the first MHA movie is about a visit of Midoriya and All Might to I-Island that is like a science colony for those scientists and engineers working on quirk research and superhero support technology. It’s heavily guarded and almost impossible to break into, which is what happens and is the main plot of the movie with super-villains taking over the security system and turning it against the island’s inhabitants while carrying out their evil plan.

To get around the super-tight security of the island they relied on inside help, and those insiders had pretty convoluted reasons for helping them. Meanwhile, Midoriya discovers that basically all his friends from the academy are also on the island (explained away through various convoluted reasons) and obviously they all get pitted against the various henchmen of the villain group, but instead of taking them head-on initially, they first have to climb a massive tower to the highest level to regain control of the security system.

The movie is fun to watch, not essential but has some neat fights and some pretty good visuals at the climax. That said, it really feels like a filler, none of the characters show any character growth, except maybe that the movie allows All Might one last big battle where he can go all-out and show what he’s made off, which stretches believability a bit as he shouldn’t be able to do that anymore.

Counterpart S1 (2017-2018)

When I first stumbled onto Counterpart I was immediately hooked, a TV show with an intriguing sci-fi premise (two divergent versions of Earth connected at a crossing in Berlin, Germany that was seemingly born from a physics experiment gone wrong in 1987) but that played more like a spy-thriller about agents from both Earths trying to avoid a cold war going hot.

It has marvelously realized characters, its actors often had to play two versions of the same character which could be widely different in temperament and habitus and most of the main actors managed this quite well. The best example is J. K. Simmons who plays both an older, low-ranking employee of the agency watching over the crossing and his counterpart high-ranking agent from the other Earth who is far more ruthless and aggressive.

Counterpart is one of those examples where I feel like I failed to fully engage with the show. It has good acting, excellent use of the location it takes place in and yet the first season moved at such a glacial pace that I stopped watching after five episodes. It’s not bad, just that for my taste it just moved too slow and I lost patience with it. But what I saw of the show was good, great even. Wish I had the patience to move on with it. Maybe one day.

Baahubali: The Beginning (2015)

The best way to describe Baahubali: The Beginning, which is really part one of a larger movie (indicated by the obvious subtitle), is extravaganza. It’s one and a half-hour of current plot (current in terms of when the movie takes place), then it’s a one-hour flashback and then the movie ends without resolving anything. This is not a complaint, mind you.

Despite that structure clearly requiring you to see the second part called Baahubali: The Conclusion, there’s almost no boring moment in the whole thing. It’s a fantasy epic filtered through an Indian perspective that takes place in the past with names of places alluding to real places, although despite my lack of knowledge about India and those ancient places, I assume its mostly a mythological version of India.

The main story is as old as time, two brothers, one became king (the other hated not being chosen), they both had sons, again one of them became king (the son of the former king), while the other son hated not being chosen. That is stuff we get from the flashback, while the movie starts with a woman saving a child from attackers, dying while delivering him to safety, where he grows up not knowing where he came from.

Despite this, he shows remarkable feats of strength and bravery, while trying to climb the nearby mountain from which he came from, until one day he manages it driven by love for an unknown woman whose wooden mask fell down from the mountain. Which leads him into conflict with his uncle who has usurped his throne and birthright.

I call this an extravaganza, because the movie lavishly heaps on style at every moment, celebrating massive ceremonies, fights, its main heroes and villains. It’s not quite the musical that a lot of Bollywood movies seem to be, but its closer to theater than the recent western kind of fantasy.

Baahubali isn’t interested in realism, but in fun, in showing awesome sights, larger-than-life characters and scenes of impressive strength and heroism to the point they would be a farce in western movies if it wasn’t acted with the utter honesty on display here. The fights are fun, but you never get the feeling the actors could fight in real life (like some of the actors of Chinese or Hong Kong martial arts movies), but it doesn’t matter much like its less about the skill than about, again, showing crazy stuff on the screen. War elephants, thousands of flying arrows. There’s a bit of violence and gore, but far less you would expect from a movie with massive combat scenes.

I’m not even sure it’s a good movie, because if I judge it by western standards it wouldn’t measure up well. But it comes from a different tradition and clearly has a different focus, and feels more like fantasy epics from 50 years ago. And compared to those, it’s pretty good. And despite its run time, it was never boring.

Some things should probably be mentioned as something that would raise at least eyebrows in the west, like the enemy army in the flashback where all the enemy are basically barbarian black-faced people or the scene where Baahubali overpowers his love interest without allowing her agency or choice to say no. I’m not sure stuff like that should be chalked up completely due to cultural differences, but it’s still a movie operating on different cultural assumptions.

Blame! (2017)

The netflix Blame! anime adaptation is one of those cases where it has source material that is far too massive to adapt for a single movie, and instead of trying to compress all of it into a single incomprehensive movie it goes for adapting the beginning parts, stretching some bits, putting in more story to make it into a cohesive whole, and it works almost flawlessly.

Blame! is about a massive megastructure that is likely even bigger than a Dyson sphere, that has swallowed up Earth the moon and maybe other things. If you think about the raw matter requirements and how such a structure could remain even stable, invoke space magic of the nth-degree to make it all work.

It’s about the journey of its main character Killy through this mega structure to find the humans with the net terminal gene, as most humans are hunted down by the artificial safeguard system of the superstructure due to lacking said net terminal gene.

In the netflix adaptation that goes back to the early volumes of the manga, Killy finds a colony of humans under siege, who run out of food and have to leave the safety perimeter where the safeguard can’t enter. He helps them go to a near-by factory to get some food, while carrying the remains of a human scientist, Cibo (who is still alive due to being partly technological). On their way back they lose a few people but bring something worse back to the colony.

The adaptation captures the tone and hopelessness, the awe-inspiring architecture and the technological nature of the megastructure and its inhabitants near perfectly. The one flaw it has is that it relies very often on CGI that doesn’t look all that good. Good enough, but I wish the whole movie had been hand-crafted like in the old days.

Still, even as it is, it’s a pretty good adaption worth watching even if you’ve already read the manga as it gives a spin of its own on some of the earliest parts and seeing Killy and the safeguard fight each other in real-time and the destruction they bring forth is truly a sight to behold. That said, the movie just like the manga can be pretty violent and deadly in places. It’s never really gory, but its clearly a world where life is cheap and death waits around every corner.

The Dark Crystal (1982)

I’ve heard for years about the Dark Crystal before I finally tried it. It’s a cult classic whose biggest selling point are all the puppet designs, as the rest of the movie is decidedly mediocre. While I love animation and are often prone to forgive shortcomings if I like the animation, I don’t have the same kind of enthusiasm for puppetry and aren’t as merciful.

The Dark Crystal is a movie that feels like it was entirely built around the final twist, which is interesting conceptually but not strong enough to carry the whole narrative. So the rest of the movie is stuffed with a generic fantasy filler quest, a young, lone survivor of a race of good creatures has to go to find a crystal to banish the evil side due to a prophecy. It’s boring, repetitive and really just there to waste your time to deliver that final twist.

We have the young guy finding another of his race, a woman obviously, going to various places until the plot allows them finally to close in on the stronghold of the evil creatures. It’s all pretty rote and even the famous creature puppet design is pretty underwhelming.

Senki Zesshou Symphogear (2012)

Series about girls fighting aliens via song-powered battle suits. Sports juvenile writing and generic visuals and are just overall pretty terrible. I stopped watching after 3 episodes as it was just too much to take. The main setup is of a girl who got injured by one of the attacks of these aliens, where one of the two main girls fighting the aliens made a kamikaze move to get rid of the attackers. The injured girl got a shard of the relic that powers the battle suits stuck in her and much later another alien attack activated her powers.

From what I saw of the show the other surviving girl (of the original fighter duo) felt strongly about the other girl who had died and felt like the new girl was taking a piss on her memory and was not worth carrying her battle armor. I’m sure they make up eventually, but I won’t stick around long enough to see it.

Feels like a poor man’s Neon Genesis Evangelion (or any other anime show with a similar setup), you have aliens who attack for no real reason, you have an organization of adults watching over the kids fighting them but don’t do much than spout various supporting lines and the whole using music to fight aliens is really just a terrible idea (and the singing sounds just awful as well).

Constantine – City of Demons (2018)

I loved Hellblazer, the comic running under the Vertigo label, but couldn’t really get into the DCU version of it after they killed off that version. And this movie, while based on an older mini-series under the Vertigo label, feels like new Constantine all the time. Trying to evoke the older version, but only highlights how the newer version is trying to be edgy and extreme without really getting what made the original work.

Yes, Constantine was a scumbag in both versions who sacrificed innocent people, among them most of his friends, to save the world from worse harm. But what the new version of him lags is the utter swagger and self-confidence that allows Constantine to go and do his stick. Even in the old version, he had his weak moments, moments of self-doubts, but it never felt like he went all-out emo, he accepted who he was or just repressed those feelings. Which made him kind of fucked up, but that just added to his character. He usually was back to his bastardly ways after a short while.

Instead with the new version we got all the iconography of the old version, all the blood and guts, but written for a far more juvenile audience raised on superhero stories. Everything is simplified, everything is codified to fit the most common description of John Constantine, a trickster who does harm to good people for the good of everyone else and then feels bad about it. The surface level is the same, but the execution is seriously flawed and underwhelming. It’s more farce than drama, but with the occasional stupid bits from the rest of the DCU thrown in for good measure.

The City of Demons movie (actually a cut-together-version of a series) likewise has all the single elements of good Hellblazer story, but they never cohere into a convincing Hellblazer story. It’s less than the sum of its parts due to sudden mood shifts that give you whiplash as Constantine is sometimes stupid when the story requires it, only to then appear supersmart the next moment when another shift happens.

This lack of consistency undermines the whole narrative, the one-moment-emo-John, then the strong-again-John, the stupidly-surprised-and-out-of-his-depth-John who doesn’t know what is going on, then the really-clever-John again who had a trump card all along. And when you then add in the elements from new Constantine, the edgyness and woe-me elements and the overall superficiality of it, you get something that should be enjoyable, but drags on far too long, is too rote to surprise you at any moment and just terrible written to really enjoy.