Strange Vistas

Writing about movies, anime, books, and media

Poster for The Night Comes for Us

I'd love to see Timo Tjahjanto take a stab at directing a William Gibson adaptation. He'd need to learn some self-control, because it doesn't seem like he can go three minutes without something that shouldn't be near a body chopping into one, but he would be a fit for the sudden eruption of bloody violence that can come up in Gibson's earlier worlds.

The Night Comes for Us, his latest movie, feels like someone put The Passion of the Christ and The Man from Nowhere into a blender, leaned on the button until their bones mostly stopped crunching, then served it as a script smoothie.

It's a basic setup: Ito, a deadly triad enforcer who is supposed to leave nobody alive, takes pity on a girl after his team massacres the girl's entire village. He's not just any enforcer, but one of the feared Six Seas. The triad takes offense at his disobeying them, and sends the other five dreaded killers to follow him into Jakarta and start a cavalcade of carnage.

Indonesian action movies first broke into the West with Gareth Evans' sensational The Raid: Redemption. Not only The Raid was a hit on its own right, but Pete Travis' surprisingly enjoyable Dredd would later liberally borrow from it. The Raid also put Iko Uwais on the map, as well as (to a smaller degree) his co-star Joe Taslim. Both would end up having small parts as “that guy” on a few Hollywood action movies, before reuniting on The Night Comes for Us.

Their signature was the use of Pencak Silat, a hyperkinetic martial art which makes practitioners look as if Bruce Lee had gone on a meth binge and decided to modify Jeet Kune Do to cause as much damage as possible. Night brings it down to the shantytown dirt floor. Assassins efficiently use their signature tools – two wire-wielding women, combined with the urban grime and pervasive crime, were what triggered memories of Jonny watching Molly Mirrors fight on the Killing Floor – but thugs will charge in with cleavers and machetes and anything they have on hand. The defenders don't have the luxury of elegantly knocking one out before moving on to the next – it is an unrelenting wave of bodies coming at them, and they will use anything around them to stab and gouge as they try to survive.

The fights take place in cramped quarters – ramshackle apartments, crowded hallways, stairwells, inside a police truck. They are so full of combatants that even a warehouse seems confining and, filmed often without a single cut, feel improvised and brutal. I haven't seen a movie this obsessed with the specifics of how an individual can get mangled since Hacksaw Ridge (which, I swear, I'll get to around to writing about at some point).

There is no doubt that Tjahjanto is adept at mixing violence and style. His writing leaves a lot to be desired, with his plots brimming with clichés and action movie logic, such as a stylish assassin which shows to help because, I guess, we all wanted to see Julie Estelle again. He is also not consistently good – Headshot was a dull lump of a movie, at most a practice run for Night. When he gets things right, though, his grisly tableaus can make you forget you are watching a movie and generate a reaction closer to reflexive pain avoidance. He is brilliant at visceral butchery, but should look to collaborate with a better writer – I can only imagine what he'd do paired with an Alex Garland. For now, I'll settle for him bringing Stelle's Operator back for seconds.

#timotjahjanto #juliestelle #ikouwais #joetaslim #williamgibson #action #indonesia

Gerard Butler as a cop, leaning against a car

You lied to me, AVClub. You hinted that Den of Thieves might be decent, even though it starred Gerard Butler.

It's not.

It is, at best, a meathead version of Michael Mann's masterpiece Heat.

It seemed like it was going to be a hammy character-slash-actor-focused effort at the start – still a B-movie, but maybe the Re-Animator of cops and robbers movies. It then got into a flexing contest with itself, flew into a 'roid rage fit, floored the plot muscle car, and sped off leaving skid marks before it crashed into a cliche-filled mall of chest-pounding macho-posturing militarized-police aggrandizement. Its tone-deafness and brain-dead huffing-and-puffing might even end up making it a cult item for a particular group in this era, with its hero being a tough-guy cop who chokes information out of a black guy, in the very same sequence as a gay panic scene.

I'm not kidding.

It doesn't even have the decency of being a good bad movie. It's content with graduating from the Wild Things school of clever-characters-and-plot-twists, where the writer wants to surprise viewers but is incapable of placing a single clue that would surprise a stoned five-year-old on an Easter Egg hunt.

What does he do, then?

He keeps everyone in the dark throughout the story, only to explain what went down with flashbacks at the end. Surprise, motherfucker!

There go two hours of my life. On the bright side, I can take it as a warning to stay away from writer/director Christian Gudegast in the future.

#christiangudegast #gerardbutler #pabloschreiber

Birds of Prey poster

How in the name of Martha Wayne's pearls did this alcohol-drenched magenta-tinted Takashi Miike-reminiscent Johnnie To-on-speed glitter-bomb romp get greenlit, nevermind released?

It's even more surprising when you emerge from all its craziness and remember that Birds of Prey spawned out of David Ayer's Suicide Squad abortion.

Some background here: DC Comics saw what Marvel had, and coveted it. Since they had been doing dour affairs where Superman, a reminder of all that's good in humanity, snaps a guy's neck, they decided to double-down on the grime and meanness. Out comes Suicide Squad, a Dirty Half-Dozen of B-list comic book villains, written and directed by David Ayer, the Marylin Manson of macho movies.

One of said B-list villains was Harley Quinn, the crazy girlfriend of Batman's arch-nemesis The Joker. It became a breakthrough role for Margot Robbie, who had been a firecracker on The Wolf of Wall Street, and took the opportunity to turn the hyper up to 11 on her portrayal of Harley as a psychotic cheerleader. The movie sucked, she was a hit. Some Warner Bros. executive decided to make lemonade and signed Robbie on for a first-look deal. She chose a Suicide Squad spin-off as her first choice.

Cue facepalm. Why would she willingly go back to that tepid slime-covered rat-drowning well, now that she gets to work on whatever she wants?

Because she thought it would be fun if she got to do it her way, it looks like.

So we get Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, a movie about what happens after Harley Quinn breaks up with the Joker.

(Who, by the way, was not only the worst choice in a movie full of terrible decisions, but also the single worst portrayal of any comic book character. Ever. And that's counting Roger Corman's Fantastic Four movie, and whatever was going on in Joel Schumacher's Batman adaptations.)

Back on track. Harley breaks up with the Joker. Nobody knows. It behooves her to keep it that way, because Harley's long history of fucking with people means there are a lot of people who want to fuck right back with her, and fear of the Joker keeps them at bay. Tired of him always coming up in conversation, she makes a very public, fireworks-laden break-up statement.

Bunch of other stuff is going on in Gotham at the time, involving a psychotic mobster, a pick-pocket, a killer shooting criminals in the throat with a crossbow, and the people who get dragged into the whole mess.


Now, don't get me wrong. This is not the Unforgiven of comic book movies. It's still a DC movie, but ... it's good! Not in the Wonder WomanI have a message about empowerment and taking superheroes-as-a-symbol seriously” sense, but in the “let's have fun with this shit” sense.

Hell, pretty sure a good chunk of how entertaining it is comes from how much everyone involved seems to be enjoying it. McGregor definitely is, with his narcissistic Roman Sionis, as is Robbie, who gets to play banana to almost everyone else on board. You get the impression that everyone involved went “fuck it, they're never giving me another chance like this, I'm gonna go nuts”.

(Almost undoubtedly true for Rosie Perez, as she has three strikes against her – she's female, Latina, and over 30. She's having just as much fun with this as Robbie, if not more.)

(Sub-parenthetical: By the way, now David Ayer is saying he made a “soulful drama” which was “beaten into a comedy”. The man behind the cinematic abattoir refuse that is Sabotage was going for soulful. Maybe whomever beat Suicide Squad should have hit harder.)

Back to Birds of Prey, though.

I'm not going to say it's brilliant, or perfect. Still, the sole fact that it exists at all in this era of mass-market movies designed by executives dog-piling into a committee feels like an accomplishment. I don't expect we will get to see another coke-fueled bleached-hair short-short-wearing Majima Goro gender-swap leading a movie any time soon.

I have no idea what Margot Robbie is holding over Warner executives, but here's to her continuing to use it for funsies.

#birdsofprey #margotrobbie #ewanmcgregor #rosieperez #cathyyan #dccomics

Sebastian Stan and Margot Robbie in I, Tonya

My snark reflex was to dismiss I, Tonya as “baby’s first Scorsese”. A part of me still wants to make the whole piece about how much director Craig Gillespie cribs from the diminutive director’s style. It would be unfair to the sensational acting work, though.

There’s a chance y’all don’t know this story, as it happened before Instagram was a thing.

In January 1994, figure skating exploded onto the news everywhere. Someone had assaulted Nancy Kerrigan, a contestant, one day before the U.S. Figure Skating Championship, and tried to break her leg with a telescopic baton. Suspicion promptly fell on Tonya Harding, another contestant.

Now, when I describe it like that, it kind of sounds like a professional hit. The whole thing was a circus. The story is so bananas that I don’t want to be responsible for spoiling its insanity. It was so absurd; it became irresistible. Newspapers in places that had zero interest in figure skating, much less U.S.-specific events, kept publishing the latest developments, chronicling fuck-up after fuck-up. It was a time before always-on global news was a thing – CNN had just gotten its big break a few years earlier with the Gulf War. It lasted for months – it’s my first memory of the news cycle morphing into world-wide entertainment, a transition that would cement itself a few months later with the O.J. Simpson case.

(Oh god, can you imagine that happening now? The attackers would probably have streamed the entire thing on Twitch.)

Now there’s I, Tonya, almost three decades later, and it feels more like a goofy comedy than a recounting of events. Can’t say if Gillespie has a style of his own, but can’t argue that he chose the right one to ape for this. Still, never mind the films it cribs from – this is a movie of performances.

Allison Janey has fun with a showy part as LaVona, Harding’s asshole mother. Unfortunately for us, she isn’t in most of this, but probably for the best as far as the rest of the cast is concerned – otherwise, you’d remember nobody else but her.

Margot Robbie plays Harding as the perfect mix of physical grace and uncouth determination, a bundle of bad decisions with a drive to win, a go-getter attitude strapped to someone who started way behind the curve. You can still see Robbie in there, most of the time, but she’s good at hiding herself under a mask of spite-fueled resolve, at first, then a grimace of anger and resentment.

Sebastian Stan is a surprise – he disappears so thoroughly into the part of the useless white-trash husband LaVona refers only as “moustache,” that I didn’t recognize him at all. It’s not a “lose 100 pounds in a week” Christian Bale-style physical transformation. Stan sheds every bit of self-confidence and poise instead to vanish into the mild affectations of Jeff, an individual who knows his only distinguishing characteristic is his shave. Stan makes you feel both that Jeff tries to lift himself by associating with someone talented, and how he resents the fact that his crucial achievement in life was suckering someone with world-class skills into a co-dependent relationship.

Lots of resentment going around in this story, coming from whatever iota of self-awareness these people have.

Not Shawn Eckardt, though. Eckardt was Jeff’s friend, Tonya’s bodyguard, and a key individual in reaching out to the attackers. Eckardt is such an oblivious human caricature that I could not believe Paul Walter Hauser didn’t make up his portrayal to maximize the comedic effect. He is a guy who has forgotten he’s no longer on his basement conspiracy roleplaying game, who chose to cosplay full-time in real life. Kudos to Hauser for being able to play him with a straight face – most people couldn’t have managed.

All together, they managed to make me forget my initial pastiche impression and turn the movie into something that is half biopic and half sociological tragicomedy.

The most fascinating thing about the movie, though? The fact that it almost makes you feel sorry for Harding. It’s evident that many of her wounds are self-inflicted, but she is also competing in a system that judges not only her skill on the ice but also how closely she can pass for a prim finishing-school princess.

It’s worth recommending if you want to see some delightful acting, or to revel in the strangeness of the real. Life can be a gigantic clown car full of people who believe they are much smarter than their actions show them to be.

#itonya #margotrobbie #sebastianstan #allisonjaney #paulwalterhauser

Mel Gibson screaming

Mel Gibson has made some powerfully visceral movies as a director, from The Passion of the Christ to Apocalypto to Hacksaw Ridge (for which I still owe you a write up). His announced remake of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is a perfect match for the filmmaker I didn't expect him to grow into.

As an actor, however, he has been on check-cashing auto-pilot mode for over a decade. He last made some effort to play a low-key homicide detective trying to find out what happened to his daughter in Martin Campbell's uneven Edge of Darkness in 2010. You'll need to look further back to find something in his filmography where he seems to be enjoying himself, though, and land in Brian Helgeland's Payback back in 1999.

(No, I still haven't seen Dragged Across Concrete. I should. S. Craig Zahler's Bone Tomahawk was a revelation, and his raw meanness would have been a better match for this movie, but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

With that in mind, I can't tell you why I ended up watching Blood Father. I needed something grimy and raspy and bourbon-soaked, I guess. It seemed to fit the bill. It had a decent cast. It was worth a shot.

The fact that it wasn't distributed or produced by Gibson's Icon production should have been a hint.

Gibson plays John Link, an alcoholic ex-con with a history of violence written in his face. When we first see him, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, he looks like a former biker who got pickled in formaldehyde then left out in the sun for a couple of decades. He runs a tattoo parlor called Missing Link out of his trailer home, which looks more abandoned than parked in some California dustbowl. He is keeping himself clean and mostly sane, until his missing daughter Lydia shows up looking for help.

Which of course she does, because that's the main reason for having a movie dad who looks this much like someone you don't fuck with. Particularly when you are even more of a self-destructive dumb-ass than daddy, and compound things by going at it with a teenager's energy.

Things go to shit right away when drug dealers arrive and shoot his place up. Instead of waiting for the police, surrounded by a good dozen people who would vouch for his innocence, Link instead decides to flee the scene with Lydia, for reasons that aren't entirely clear other than otherwise there wouldn't be a movie.

The movie then putters about for another hour-something, with Gibson getting exactly one scene to go nuts in before it ends in a shoot-out that plays out the exact way you'd expect. It introduces some colorful characters and background bits that could have made this more interesting, if the director was bold enough about making an exploitation film, then does nothing with them. Michael Parks phones it in as yet another Preacher. Raoul Max Trujillo's promise as a Cartel Terminator goes to waste. Miguel Sandoval seems to be having fun for all of fifteen seconds. William H. Macy is barely there.

B movies are an honest craft, folks. If you're going to make one, don't treat it like something to be ashamed of.

The blame lies six parts on the script and half a dozen on the director. When the plot has laid all its cards on the table, the way things play out makes little sense. And as for the person guiding this whole thing, I'd even forgotten director Jean-François Richet's insipid remake of Assault on Precinct 13 existed. I expect Blood Father to soon suffer the same fate.

#bloodfather #melgibson #erinmoriarty #michaelparks #williamhmacy #raoulmaxtrujillo

2010 flash crash

On May 6, 2010, something went amiss in the United States stock market. Starting at 2:42 pm, prices on equity markets began to drop rapidly. Individuals, trading firms, pension funds all reacted panicky, selling into the crash, attempting to cut their losses, and within minutes, over a trillion dollars of value had vanished. Twenty minutes later, the market had bounced back – not to the levels it was half an hour earlier, but to a point where investors could stop thinking about impending doom.

Those with steady hands were barely affected. Some made money. Most active participants lost enough that it sparked conspiracy theories, academic research, congressional hearings, and several federal investigations.

Almost five years later, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission pinned it all on one man. It wasn't an over-leveraged hedge fund manager or a politically connected player doing insider trading, but a random guy trading out of his parents' house in London's edges. They argued that Navinder Sarao, using a home computer and a residential internet connection, created a maelstrom of panicked decisions that engulfed both professional fund managers and high-tech trading firms capable of taking bites out of the market in nanoseconds.

The crash will get its chapter, but, despite its title, Liam Vaughn's Flash Crash does not follow the event itself but Sarao.

The dubbed him The Hound of Hounslow. The picture that emerges through Flash Crash is not what you'd expect from the monicker. Nav Sarao is not the Wolf of Wall Street, some white-shoed Gordon Gecko-worshipping bro-suit, or table-pounding speechifying Boiler Room refugee.

Who he is, and why it's worth having 240 pages around the story of a guy clicking on a screen in a bedroom, I'll let you find out for yourself.

I'll say this: Nav sees systems.

He's not an engineer but a trader, someone who has to go to a programmer to create extensions to his usual platform. His e-mails are part of the public record, so we get to see the features he requested. These are straightforward rules, blindingly simple. He is asking for the financial equivalent of “for every step someone else takes, walk one step back” or “if I want to buy 12 items, and someone sells me just 1, cancel the other 11”. He intends to use these trivial rules to outsmart algorithms that make decisions in billionths of a second over connections that transfer information at the speed of light. If you didn't know you were reading a book about someone accused of causing the financial world to have a near-death experience, you would shake your head at their seeming naiveté.

He doesn't even mean these rules to be his trading heuristics – these features are only there to remove some clicks for him, help him interact faster with the markets. Nav is still in control of all decisions. It's almost impossible to see how these rules would help – even if you know a bit about finance and algorithms. The only way these would work is if Nav knew what multiple competing participants, who employed large teams of mathematicians and programmers, were doing behind the scenes.

And seemingly, he did.

Figuring out how a person like that processes reality, the possibilities of being capable of distilling a tangled process from the manifold of its signifiers, and how that can turn against him, will be what keeps you turning the pages.

#books #nonfiction #finance

Dark Shadows movie poster

So that's why I stopped watching Tim Burton movies over a decade ago. He had become a caricature of himself.

I'd forgotten.

His output has gotten bland enough that not even Eva Green's scenery-chewing can make it fun. Dark Shadows is so diffidently mediocre it doesn't even have the decency of being bad enough that you can make jokes at its expense.

#darkshadows #timburton #johnnydepp #evagreen

Book picture besides an iPhone X

The most striking thing about Tracy Kidder’s 40-year-old The Soul of a New Machine is not how well it holds up. That is a remarkable achievement by itself, consider its age. It chronicles the efforts to build the “Eagle”. The Eagle was a commercial computer, which at one demo has 128 terminals wired to it, and which fully-loaded didn’t have enough RAM to store an iPhone screenshot. Its processing was split among seven different boards wired together because miniaturized chips weren’t feasible yet. No description involving any of this has any right of holding up, and still Kidder manages.

The most striking thing about it is reading it now, decades later, and realizing how many of the lessons we knew back then we keep forgetting.

I’ll get back to that.

It’s no surprise the book is good – it won a Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. But it is a writing masterclass in at least two ways.

Tom West, someone who we expect will end up being our lead character, appears first on the sensational opening. We don’t talk to him, nor do we hear him speak much, but we see how others who don’t know him react around him as they are all on the same literal boat, in the middle of a storm. Then the book moves onto giving us a half-tour half-montage of the minicomputer industry in the 1970s, telling us about feuds and founders and fortunes being minted, talking about everything and anything other than our mystery man, before dropping him into the story again on the very last line of chapter 1.

It’s a beautiful, enthralling opening that sells you on the rest of the story right away.

The second way in which its writing is exemplar is how thoroughly researched it is. That Kidder takes his time with character is not extraordinary, but I’m surprised at his clear-eyed descriptions of things like the process of pursuing and removing hardware bugs. Kidder is a reporter, not an engineer, yet he describes hardware processes better than many experienced engineers I know. As he goes on to detail how, say, a CPU loads and evaluates instructions every time a billionth of a second ticks by, you get the impression that Kidder asks questions and doesn’t stop following up until he is satisfied he understands the answers.

And yet, that's all silicon, and a golem is nothing without a soul. Melvin Conway proposed in 1967 that any organization designing a system will produce a design that embodies the same organization’s communication structures. We get a preview of this early on, as Tom West disassembles the VAX – a competitor’s much-touted computer – and finds it wanting. It is complicated, expensive, involves too much protocol. West seems to disapprove that DEC was playing it safe.

His team, we feel him think, will do better.

The people that would end up becoming the Eagle team are the leftovers of a corporate move, an underfunded, understaffed eclectic collection that West starts pulling into his “insurance project”. West can’t throw money at the problem – hell, he can’t even order people to join his team. He needs to find ways to get them to “sign up”, to sell themselves on the idea that this project needs to succeed.

It’s the old Shackleton expedition apocrypha, but in an overcrowded basement.

Yet he succeeds in gathering a band to breathe life into this amorphous creature. The people he gathers say they don’t do it for the money so often that you start thinking that the engineer doth protest too much, even more so considering current day tech salaries. To all lights, they weren’t paid that much. These are not the current day spoiled millionaire engineer brogrammers. They’re not even the company stars – those moved to a new office at the start of the story, to work on Data General’s main project.

How does West do it?

He provides agency, freedom to invent, and a sense of shared purpose.

Tom West has little else to offer other than absurdly long hours, impossible deadlines, and a project that management itself doesn’t seem to believe in. But he creates an environment in which his engineers are allowed to roam with few constraints.

Do you want people to push themselves to achieve an unlikely goal? You set only a few gross parameters at a high level (“no mode bit!”). You then move decision making to the organization’s edges, to the boots on the ground who have the knowledge to make things happen and the capability to act. You let everyone feel that they can contribute, no matter their rank in the organization, and they do.

He does all that, then disappears into the background, to take care of the plumbing so that his team can have running water.

Here’s what you don’t do: You don’t tell them you’re empowering them, while spelling out everything they are supposed to do and micro-managing them, because god forbid you feel someone else knows more than you do. You don’t have overt signs of rank, because a nicer office, or more expensive hardware, have a way of reminding people of who’s boss. If you remind people that they have a lane, they may stick to it as you wanted, but also won’t contribute outside of it.

Sadly, there is one line people do remember from this story – West’s pithy phrase of “mushroom management.” He says that’s how you keep a team like this growing: you keep them in the dark and feed them shit.

Context, it turns out, is everything.

West was keeping the team in the dark about if the company believed in the Eagle team, its odds of seeing the light of day, management’s wavering support. Companies take that line literally now, not giving people enough information to make their decisions, run by insecure middle managers who hide behind it, feeling that empowering employees would threaten their position.

And still, the technology industry (and businesses at large) keep forgetting the Eagle’s lessons. Thirty years after this book came out, Dan Pink made a fortune proposing that people are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. He called this “a surprising truth”.

Maybe that’s the true lesson from The Soul of a New Machine: companies don’t learn. If you want to make money, find a 30-year-old masterpiece and popularize a fraction of it.

Because Soul is a masterpiece. It not only holds up – it feels vibrant, current. The technology industry could learn a few things from West’s team, even now.

#tracykidder #nonfiction #book #technology

Yakuza 0 is a prequel to Yakuza, the silly action-adventure fighting game that introduced us to Kyriu Kazuma, the granite gangster with a soft, mushy center. On Yakuza 0, we spend our time alternating between two parallel stories. As Kyriu Kazuma, we spend our time in Kamurocho, out to clear Kyriu's name of a murder he didn't commit while staving off a conspiracy that threatens his mentor. As Majima Goro, Kyriu's deranged frenemy from the first game, we are trapped in Sotenbori (which is to Osaka's Dōtonbori as Kamurocho is to Tokyo's Kabukicho), slaving at building someone else a fortune before getting dragged into a conspiracy around a blind girl.

It would be a much better game if it had less Kyriu in it.

Kyriu introducing himself

Kyriu Kazuma is a lunkhead, an unimaginative bore who can mostly punch and kick his way through things. Yakuza: Kiwami works both because and in spite of it. The game is populated with absurd situations, like Kyriu teaching kids a lesson on friendship right after he punched his way through an entire building of thugs, Majima coming out of manholes or staging a zombie outbreak just to keep you on your toes, or attack helicopters trying to kill a kid. Kyriu approaches every one of these situations with the same solemnity, unaware of the level of absurdity going on around him. We are laughing at the preposterous side quests and farcical events, but we're also laughing at Kyriu, our own avatar, for taking them seriously.

Yakuza: Kiwami had its share of issues, but its sheer level of absurd fun made it easy to overlook them. It was the right kind of stupid.

Try as I might, I can't wring out the same fun out of Yakuza 0. All the pieces are there, but they don't just fit together in the same way. It's nowhere nearly as delirious.

Let me get this out of the way first and say that the story is part of the problem. Yakuza reveled in its absurdity. Even without the well-balanced gameplay (and there were a couple of sections that were less than stellar), you could derive a lot of fun out of the way the story kept trying to one-up its own barking madness.

Yakuza: 0's story is much more grounded, and seems to be trying to skew closer to Takeshi Kitano than Takashii Miike. The side quests and activities, though, keep being as juvenile as in the original game.

It's a surprise to find out that they share the same writer and producer, because it gives the impression that whomever assembled this one didn't realize what made the previous construction work.

If you mix toy car racing with melodramatic government-spanning conspiracies worthy of Oliver Stone writing a soap opera, you'll get belly laughs; but if you expect me to chase gravure phone cards after hearing how Demetrius and Chiron went to work on Lavinia, all you're going to get is dissonance.

Such a dramatic back story, full of tortured pasts and murdered friends would have worked, if Majima was the protagonist. The game has us play a more centered Majima Goro than the batshit insane knife-demon from the first game, the man capable of crashing a truck into a brothel just to have another go at fighting Kyriu. It's a side of him we haven't seen before.

This more calculating, younger Majima would have been a great vehicle for a dramatic story, with some funny ancillary elements. We know that he was tortured. We know he'll end up turning into some half-crazy half-playful lunatic. We know he has a story arc coming.

Kyriu, though, is just Kyriu. There are only two differences between him here and in the rest of the series: his tattoo is not complete yet, and he hasn't sorted his perma-wardrobe. There's nowhere for the character to go, nothing they can do with him other than have him punch out people for a different reason than he did before. And who was the genius who added another quick-time highway shootout to this?

The worst thing is that it's not a bad game. It's a good one, even, but you can see a great Yakuza game in there, if they'd only committed. The funny moments still work. Kyriu not only Bogarting Nishiki's golden lighter, but commandeering his car in the middle of a theatrical, overblown exchange, without anyone commenting on it. The Complete Dominations. The chicken. There were parts where I laughed out when they happened, then chuckled every so often later when I remembered them.

Majima striking a dance pose

But the side quest design is not as imaginative as in Yakuza Kiwami. There are some funny people you encounter, but most situations resolve immediately – there is barely any surprise in them, a sense that you'll meet these people later.

The minigames, which soon become tedious but are almost required for progress, are what detracts the most from it. You spend too long grinding, trying to get money to actually increase your stats, to unlock the ultimate fighting styles. Once you reach those, the attached activities stop being a way to meet people, and become conversation trees that you're forced to sit through.

Majima's story gets the short end of the back-and-forth stick, which pulls the rug from under characters with who we could have spent more time. A potential antagonist and mentor, who I was sure was going to have an impact on Majima's personality. A moment, where you walk with someone through Kamurocho, which carries more tenderness than anything Kyriu did with the goddammed baby on Yakuza 6. People who we meet, and start to know, only to have them brushed away so that we can switch back to the lunkhead.

Kyriu doesn't need much of a story. He is nothing but a human wrecking ball, and if you want to keep this as a melodramatic action comedy, he is the perfect choice. But if you are going to put this much work into humanizing Majima Goro, the Mad Dog Of Shimano, you should stick with it until the job is done.

Majima high-fiving his brain

#yakuza #yakuza0 #games #sega #majimagoro

The King's Speech

I'd have an easier time recommending Tom Hooper's The King's Speech if the strings weren't so damned evident.

In case you don't know (it's ten years old, and historical): Albert Frederick Arthur George, Duke of Wales, needs help with his speech impediment. Knighted doctors of the realm have tried to treat him with worse than medieval methods. His wife, whose name I don't believe they say out loud once, reaches out to unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue for help. Logue also happens to be a poor, egalitarian iconoclast, of course, but him and “Bertie” hit it off. There are a few bumps here and there, as class and nationality interfere, but the Duke of Wales, eventually King of England, comes to appreciate his commoner Australian friend (even if His Highness never apologizes for being a royal cunt).

Of course it raked in the Oscars. Best director, best screenplay, best actor, best picture. Colin Firth got both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his performance as King George VI. It's the kind of tick-laden, showy part that awards love – like the one that got Geoffrey Rush his own Oscar playing David Helfgott in Shine.

And it's not bad. It's just so artificial, every bit there placed for effect. Logue's disregard for protocol and his off-handed send-up of the Royal Therapists. How much of Bertie's stuttering came from his dad's pressure. The requisite attempt that the establishment – made flesh in Derek Jakobi's Archbishop – makes at discrediting Logue, presented perfunctorily at the very last minute and just as quickly brushed away. Queen Elizabeth's stoic helpfulness. The ending note informing us that this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. There isn't a single background prop in this movie that wasn't meticulously manicured, with a debate to analyze its potential audience impact.

Yes, it's a polished result, and it creates the intended effect, but it feels fake. Everyone involved has done better things, and it's this construct that gets a standing ovation.

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