Wednesday, December 31, 2014

It Is The Listing Time!

Just like the last two years, I'm going to talk about the best and worst of the non-comics media I consumed this year, while I wait for comics to arrive. Next week, hopefully. I would really like to do the Year in Review posts before February this time. Decided to add a category this year, though it won't have nearly as many candidates as the returning ones. I was going to do music, but I only bought about a half-dozen albums this year, and half of those I haven't listened to enough to have a strong sense of one way or the other (offhand, I'd say the two-disc Essential Weird Al Yankovic collection was my favorite music buy of the year). I'm not going to recap all this stuff because every one of these things got its own review post here on the blog at some point in 2014. As always, this is restricted to stuff that was new to me. If it came out 50 years ago, but I just read or watched it now, it's in the running.


So yeah, I read a whole lot of books this year, but a lot of them covered the same ground. A lot of World War 2, a lot of Stuart M. Kaminsky detective novels. On the plus side, all those WWII books treading similar ground, but from different angles, with different interests, combine in my head to form this much larger picture. Eisenhower's Lieutenants, Roosevelt's Centurions, Marshall and His Generals, and Walter Borneman's The Admirals (as opposed to Andrew Lambert's The Admirals on the Royal Navy). They all had good and bad points, but they're more illuminating when taken together. You could even add Ricks' The Generals and Clodfelter's The Limits of Air Power as a continuation of certain themes in later conflicts. Makes it hard for any one of them to stand out, though.

In non-fiction,  The Collapse of the Third Republic by Robert Shirer would be tops, and more engrossing than I expected for a 900+ page book. I figured it would be a slog in places, but maybe the sense of all these people just leading their country into doom gives it a momentum, even if that was driven by me yelling, "What are you idiots doing?!" at the book a lot. It's hindsight, but that didn't make it less maddening. I'd also throw in the two sports-related books I read this year, The Breaks of the Game, and Achorn's The Summer of Beer and Whiskey. A lot of cool stories about players and owners and such in both those books. Toss Irving Stone's They Also Ran in there as well. His writing can be a little nauseating, when he starts waxing too rhapsodic about his subjects, but the discussion of their lives and actions, and the fact Stone is willing to actually state whether he thinks they'd have been better Presidents than the people they lost too, and why, was appreciated.

As far as worst non-fiction, I'm going to tap Lambert's The Admirals, because of some of his biases towards his subjects. It was a little too obvious it was coloring his perspective. Also, Halpern's A Naval History of World War 1. I understand some history books will not be written with engaging language, Ki-baik Lee's A New History of Korea had dry writing, though I attribute that at least in part to being a translation. But with Lee, it felt like he wanted to cover everything and tell the reader about interesting things, whereas Halpern kept ignoring things that sounded interesting to talk about stuff that was not. Oh, and Stashower's The Beautiful Cigar Store Girl, which felt like two books with not enough to them roughly combined into one. That one felt like the biggest waste of my time.

Fiction doesn't have many positive standouts. Lot of mediocrity, a lot of weak books - Circus Couronne and Purgatory Chasm were consecutive ones, and combined with Stashower's book, my dad's collection really let me down there in the middle of March - Douglas Preston's The Impact was disappointing, but I guess I expected something very different from what I got. Maybe it was OK for what it was trying to be. 

Of all the Stuart M. Kaminsky detective stories from early in the year, the best was probably A Cold Red Sunrise. I enjoyed the Soviet Union as glastnost was starting up as a setting for the particular challenges it presents, and I liked Porfiry Petrovich as a character. Clever in that quiet, understated way, careful about not pissing off the sorts of people who would make him disappear, but still seeing justice done. I'm always a mark for Asimov, but I'd rate Pebble in the Sky well ahead of Prelude to Foundation. The latter was too obviously an attempt to connect the various stories he'd written previously, so a little forced and constrained. I liked the first half of The Hot Country, but it was too uneven. Follett's The Man from St. Petersburg was pretty good, but Lydia's indecision was so frustrating. Her unwillingness to even make the decision to do nothing was just maddening. It made me hate her, when I felt like I should pity her instead. So if I were doing a Top 5, A Cold Red Sunrise would be the only piece of fiction, to go with the 4 history books I mentioned earlier.


About half the movies I saw this year were from the last 25 years, which is more than I thought. I figured it was going to be tilted to '70s or older films because of spending time with my dad. But there were a lot of films we watched I didn't care enough about to bother writing up. As for the ones I did write about, there were several I didn't like, but often because they wanted to do something different from what I expected (Black Dragon the most notable example, where I expected the romance to be the centerpiece, and it turned out to be about helping the rose lady maintain an illusion of affluence), and they did the thing they wanted well enough. Can't fault them for that. There were films with some good stuff, but weaknesses. The Heroic Trio didn't always make sense in places, and the action scenes were limited by budget or technology. I liked parts of Bite the Bullet, but it's edited and paced oddly. As far as worst, I just found A Man Called Sledge unpleasant in a stupid, inconsistent way, and Casanova Brown was a mess. The Last of the Comanches suffers because it tries to be Sahara (the Bogart film, not the Mcconaughey one), but doesn't do it as well. That doesn't make it bad, just mediocre, and Dad and I got a lot of laughs out of "they find the well, and it's filled with more rifles", so it has that going for it.

Look, I'm picking Amazing Spider-Man 2 as the worst movie I saw this year. It was long, frequently boring as hell, had so many different plot threads that it still wasn't long enough to keep most of them from feeling rushed, or insufficiently developed. It was a film that wasn't even much fun to make fun of.

Barquero and Drop Dead Gorgeous were two movies I liked, but it was as much because I had low expectations going in. The latter film is better, but I like Lee van Cleef, even if that one sequence with Mariette Hartley's character was ugly for stupid reasons. But it's a story where you have all these people thinking big, thinking of the future and what's to come, but they're all hung up by these two guys (Lee van Cleef and Warren Oates) focused on right now. I haven't gotten around to rewatching Seven Psychopaths, but I remember liking it for the same reasons I liked In Bruges. That ability to move between strangely touching scenes involving screwed up people, and in the midst of that, shift into something completely absurd. Or vice versa.

But if I'm being honest, my two favorite movies of the year were Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and The Legend of Drunken Master. I had concerns about the Captain America movie going in; I had loved the first one, I have no real affection for the Winter Soldier story arc. But it surprised me. Some of it was probably because I watched it right after the tire fire that was Amazing Spider-Man 2 - it certainly was helped by that comparison - but it kept things moving, there were rarely any lulls, and the ways in which they kept things interesting changed. Action scene, dialogue sequence that advances the plot and establishes characterization, car chase, maybe some humor. Everybody got chances to look cool, and Chris Evans is a good Captain America. I don't really care whether it's trying to make some larger point, I'm ultimately concerned about it as an action film (and a Captain America movie), and it delivered for me in both regards. As for Legend of Drunken Master, it has great fight scenes (which I expected), there's a lot of humor in it (which I sort of expected, but not always in the form it took, there are some great punchline/reaction bits), and Anita Mui steals the show (which I didn't expect at all). She's great as this theatrical, sneaky badass, who deeply cares for her stepson and is maybe a little too willing to encourage his risky behavior. It was her presence in Black Dragon, opposite Chan, that made me want to pick up that movie, though it wound up not being what I expected.

Video Games

This isn't a huge field. Handful of XBox 360 games, handful of XBox Live Arcade games, maybe a couple of things I fooled around with once or twice on my coworkers' older consoles, but I didn't play Silent Hill: Shattered Memories or Castlevania 4 enough to really consider either of them. I played Paperboy a lot when I was a kid, so that's out. As far as games I bought physical copies of, we have the following candidates: Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light, Sonic Generations, Tales of Vesperia, Deadpool, Fallout 3, and I guess, Diablo 3. Heck, throw in Resident Evil 6. I didn't play it for very long, but I played it enough to know it was poorly designed and not fun. In fact, RE 6 wins worst game hands down. From the stupidity of setting up a co-op game where one of you can't do anything for the first 5 minutes, because your character is too injured to do anything other than get dragged around, to the idiotic "find the car keys" mini-game (and then they don't let you have any fun driving the car and hitting zombies while your partner leans out the window and shoots, what the hell).

I mean, Deadpool was formulaic, repetitive, and not really original, but it owned that, even played it up, and it didn't take itself seriously. Metro: Last Light generally failed to establish most of the story and emotional connections it tried to play up, because it didn't spend enough time on them, but they improved the gameplay (especially by adding the option to knock out people you sneak up on, rather than always having to kill or avoid them), and the setting is still very cool. I'd compare the experience of playing the two Metros to Resident Evil 2 and 4, actually. 2 had the better developed characters and stronger story beats, but some serious gameplay flaws (camera actively working against you), whereas 4 was a much smoother playing experience, but the story felt weaker, and I didn't care about the characters as much.

On the Arcade side of things, there's Aces of the Galaxy, Sonic CD, Comix Zone, Braid, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game. I've played Scott Pilgrim more than the others combined, so it wins in a landslide. I usually struggle with older Sonic games, I'm bad at puzzles (which makes Braid a real struggle), and Aces of the Galaxy is an OK rail shooter flight game, but you know, my N64 is right there, I can just play Starfox 64 again instead. None of them are bad games, but none of them have given me as much enjoyment as Scott Pilgrim.

Favorite game of the year, though, is easy: Tales of Vesperia. Most JRPGs I've played are successfully at getting me invested in the characters and the story. It's kind of the nature of those games, since they usually devote time to cut scenes for dialogue between the party, or to show the outcome of some fight that advances the plot or whatever. I don't always like all the characters (there often seems to be some young kid in the group who's kind of an annoying goober), but I get to know them, and still try to look after them, even if it's just in a proprietary, "they're mine, you don't get to kill them" way. The only potentially new thing Tales of Vesperia did there compared to other ones I've played was they didn't designate one character or pairing as the funny one. Lots of characters got busted on, or were the butt of jokes, which does help in some ways (it feels like more of a real close-knit group, where no one is off limits), but it's hardly vital.

However, Tales of Vesperia is the first RPG I've played where I didn't regard level-grinding as some horrible and tedious necessary evil. The whole Synthesis thing for items, and the fact it even included stuff that didn't help your character, but could alter their appearance, so just for kicks, meant there was another reason to run around fighting monsters. And since some of the items would give your characters new skills, that was another reason to want to make things, so it all tied together well.

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