Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo

It’s disheartening how all animated movies are practically the same now. Same style. Same jokes. Same pacing. So the Laika films truly are something special. I love stop-motion animation, after all, and I’m glad there’s at least one studio that still embraces it. I just wish they would hire better writers. Kubo is probably my favorite of their efforts, but it, too, falls victim to lame attempts at humor, forced dialogue, and inconsistent characters. Kubo, for instance, starts out as a very mysterious and soft-spoken boy, but once his adventure begins, and the stakes are significantly higher, he’s suddenly sticking his tongue out and acting immature. Same goes for the monkey character. The more we learn about her, the more her previous actions don’t make much sense.

The adventure itself is fun, though. While it does feel a little video gamey in the sense that Kubo has to find three artifacts before he can defeat the “end boss” (where each artifact is guarded by a mini-boss), I walked into the movie kind of expecting that. Not like Coraline where the game-like finale came out of nowhere. Plus, despite the cast being quite small, all of the characters were very memorable. Bringing in big stars like Matthew McConaughey wasn’t even as distracting as I thought it would be. More importantly, though, is that Laika’s signature animation style is perfect for this type of project. Kubo benefits from stop-motion more than anything else they’ve done. The world feels real and fantastical at the same time, and I really hope they continue down this direction. But they’ve got to up the quality of the writing to match!

Bojack Horseman – Season 3

Bojack Horseman

Every season of Bojack Horseman leaves me feeling… different. They seem to always end on a dour note, and for the next several days, I have brooding Bojack quotes running through my head. This show gets a little too real at times. But that’s also why it’s so intriguing. It goes from silly animal puns to existential crises at the drop of a hat. While the humor doesn’t always land (though to be fair, much of the humor is in the background details, anyway), the “serious” scenes will punch you in the gut every damn time. Honestly, Bojack Horseman has more of an effect on me than most other shows billed as outright dramas.

A lot of Season 3 felt like retread, though. Bojack still hates himself and still messes up good opportunities when they come around. We’ve kind of seen that already many times before, only now he’s digging a deeper hole and pushing his friends farther away. But speaking of which, the supporting cast felt more important and less cartoony this time around. That’s especially true of Todd. I never cared for Todd before, but I thought he was used well, and by the end of the season, we learn something about him that really humanizes him. Plus, I think Aaron Paul’s voice acting finally grew on me.

The voice acting in general has always been a little hit or miss. The show does bring in some pretty big stars, but, as I’ve said before, great actors aren’t necessarily great voice actors. I still absolutely love Will Arnett as Bojack, though. This is the best thing Arnett has done since Arrested Development. Surprisingly, however, the most memorable episode of the season had very little voice acting at all. The dream-like underwater episode was such a joy to watch, and without any dialogue, they still managed to convey the same heart and soul. I already can’t wait to see where this series goes and what boundaries it pushes next year.

Pokémon Go

Pokemon Go

Pokémon Go is the most frustrating mobile game I’ve ever played. It constantly crashes or freezes on me. Now I’ve been good to cut Niantic some slack since I’m pretty sure nobody expected the game to turn into a worldwide phenomenon overnight. They’ve undoubtedly got their hands full trying to cool off the servers and don’t have time to investigate every crash on every outdated Android device. But good lord, it gets annoying having to reboot the game every five minutes, because it keeps failing to track my movement. That makes trying to hatch eggs—a very cool idea, by the way—a painful process. And there have been many times where I’ve gone to an area with a lot of Pokéstops and couldn’t participate in the fun, because the game kept outright quitting on me.

Normally, I would not be this forgiving of such a problematic game, but it’s hard to say no to Pokémon. I was a big fan of the original generation, so Pokémon Go feels tailor-made to me. And when it works, it’s a truly fun experience. I don’t say that from a gameplay perspective, either, because… let’s face it, there’s not much “game” here. Sure, throwing a Pokéball sometimes ends up being a little trickier than you thought, but the gym battles, if you even care about them (or rather, if you can even get into a gym without the game breaking), kind of take the fun out of traditional, turn-based Pokémon fights. It’s the act of collecting that makes this so exciting, that every time you boot the game up, there might be a rare Pokémon nearby to propel you into the cool kids’ club.

Unfortunately, Niantic had to remove the “nearby” feature, which makes it impossible to actively hunt for specific Pokémon. But that hasn’t stopped me from frequently checking the game to see what monsters are still within reach. Truth is, I haven’t had to walk much to accumulate a lot of Pokémon, anyway. There’s a Pokéstop outside my office, for instance, that almost always has a lure activated thanks to someone else. I’m much too self-conscious to actually go out and find this generous person, however, but I like and appreciate the social potential here. The neatest thing about Pokémon Go, after all, is how it turns real landmarks into Pokéstops, which gives you an incentive to explore and see parts of your city you previously never noticed. I’ll forgive the warts of any game that encourages such. But man… they seriously need to fix these bugs.

Xenoblade Chronicles

Xenoblade Chronicles

It was easy to miss the original Xenoblade Chronicles game when it first came out, so I’m really glad Nintendo brought it to the eShop. It’s a good RPG and a great way to keep the spirit of the newer Wii U game going if beating that one left a hole in your heart. It’s probably not entirely fair to go from the Wii U game to the older Wii game, though. It does feel like a step back, not just graphically but in everything, as you realize Xenoblade Chronicles X improved on a lot. But the Wii version manages to stand out on its own, too.

For one, the story and characters are more interesting. Yes, it’s a typical JRPG where the “chosen one” spends most of his time dramatically grunting and yelling his friends’ names, and nobody really dies in very non-surprising twists. But the end goal was clearer, and the story didn’t hit as many lulls. I also really liked the game’s character management, how you’re free to switch around active members (even taking main hero Shulk out of the picture altogether), and how characters’ affinity towards each other allows them to share skills. Building the perfect team is quite rewarding.

The side missions, however, were pretty lame. That’s something XCX did much, much better. As for the battle system, it’s fundamentally the same but does enough differently to not be a total bore if you’ve already seen it. This is one of my favorite battle systems of any RPG, after all, so it was great to be able to experience it again in an alternate universe. I just wish the last several hours weren’t all fights against the same robots. It’s no surprise, then, that the Wii U version is still the better game, but I’d recommend newcomers start here so they can appreciate the progress the series is making. And if you’re not a newcomer, check it out, anyway.

Veep – Season 5

Veep

Veep has one of the best ensembles of any TV show, and the cast just keeps getting better with every season. I have no idea how they’re going to keep them all together next season, though, considering how this one ended. Season 5 was already starting to feel a little disjointed with so many of the characters taking on roles outside of the White House. Please don’t tell me Season 6 is going to be a “where are they now” type of thing. I will certainly miss watching political power slip out of Selina’s grasp. It did take me a while, however, to warm up to her being president. When the stakes are higher, her team’s fumbling isn’t quite as amusing. But since I had all of last season to come to terms with that, Season 5 wasn’t nearly as disconcerting.

And at the end of the day, this was a pretty funny season. Normally low-key characters like Mike, Gary, and Catherine got a lot more time to shine, and the insults were as sharp and memorable as always. This season did feel a little off, though; it felt more “sitcommy.” I usually don’t get caught up in behind-the-scenes drama, but I was aware that the showrunner had changed, and the repercussions of that were obvious. Yes, the characters remained faithful, and the jokes were still great, but the situations veered on the cliché side. A scene where two characters argue until they start making out? An episode where a character tries to juggle two groups of people without them seeing each other? Come on, Veep, you can do (and have done) better than that.

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse

In X-Men: Apocalypse, one of the characters cheekily remarks that the third movie in a trilogy is always the worst, which was probably them taking another potshot at The Last Stand, but it ironically reflects my feelings about this movie. To be clear, I didn’t hate it. I really like what these newer X-Men movies are doing with the characters. They look great, their powers are awesome to see in action, and the brief moments where they actually have personality are fun. But there’s the rub. Most of the time, characters are just… there. Were you worried Olivia Munn wouldn’t be a good Psylocke? Well, she does so little in Apocalypse that it’s hard to form an opinion either way.

I’m mostly baffled by Mystique’s inclusion, though. She serves no purpose to the plot and pretty much plays moral support for the other characters. I think they only included her, because they already had Jennifer Lawrence on board to play the character. They’re gonna drag her along as much as they did Hugh Jackman, though to be fair, Wolverine’s cameo here was kind of cool. I also enjoyed Nightcrawler’s and, once again, Quicksilver’s presence. Quicksilver’s going to have a show-stealing scene in every movie now, isn’t he? But it was starting to feel like he was too powerful, and I was gearing up to complain that he could have taken out the bad guy by himself.

Thankfully, they do finally address that, but the Apocalypse character as a whole is dumb. He’s honestly the weakest part of the movie. His origins are silly, he spends most of the movie standing around and monologuing, and the fact that he was able to sum up his thoughts on modern society by touching a TV set and then, in a very Ultron-like way, determine the Earth needed cleansing was a little contrived. But that wasn’t nearly as bad as watching the movie restart Magneto’s fall to the dark side in the most clichéd way possible. It’s like every X-Men movie feels the need to “reboot” something. Granted, X-Men are usually more fun to watch when they’re first coming to terms with their powers and identities, but this franchise is going to stagnate (again) if they can’t start building off of that.