james debate
james debate

Saturday 22 April 2023

Directed by Aaron Horvath, Michael Jelenic 
Written by Matthew Fogel
Produced by Chris Meledandri, Shigeru Miyamoto
Starring Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jack Black, Charlie Day, Seth Rogen
Studio Illumination
Running time 92 minutes

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There are no good videogame movies, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Any time a celebrated videogame series is adapted to other media, this old chestnut invariably rears its head. Only, it's not really true and hasn't been for a while. Just this year we've had an adaptation of The Last of Us released to high critical acclaim, while the last few years have seen not one, but two Sonic the Hedgehog movies and Detective Pikachu, all certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. So it is perhaps not so unheard of as the wisdom would suggest. What is fair to say is that videogame adaptations have a low hit-rate. While there are plenty of good ones, most are not (the reason for why that is the case is a discussion for another time). 

So when Nintendo decided to try their hand at adapting Mario to the big screen this year, it predictably spawned the usual breathless headlines asking whether this would be the film to break the (mostly mythical) videogame movie curse. Lazy journalism aside, the point stands that there is a lot riding on the success of this film. Nintendo clearly has visions of an expansive cinematic universe, yet has historically been very protective of its IP - understandably so given their early misadventures into Hollywood in the 1990s. So the real question is simply, have they finally cracked the movie industry?

The Super Mario Bros Movie is an adaptation of Nintendo's beloved mascot. Fully animated by the people at Illumination, best known for Despicable Me and Minions. The decision to award such a flagship IP to a studio known for fairly forgettable kids movies certainly raised a few eyebrows, but in truth it's hard to imagine any of the top tier animation studios agreeing to adapt someone else's IP so it shouldn't have come as a surprise. 

It is fair to say that this is a cut above the typical Illumination movie in terms of quality. The animation is gorgeous and highly detailed, the writing is witty and there's a general sheen of quality throughout. The film is also jam-packed full of references and your favourite characters from the games. It's actually fairly impressive how much they've managed to cram into a short runtime without it falling apart completely. There's Mario Kart, Donkey Kong... they manage to sneak in a few obscure references to Jump Man and Kid Icarus. We even get the obligatory "your princess is in another castle" gag. The score also makes extensive use of the music from the games, to good effect. This is all very pleasing to a videogame nerd such as myself.

The characters themselves are fairly well translated to the big screen. Mario and Luigi are basically the Italian-American plumber stereotypes you expect them to be. Donkey Kong is a lovably arrogant jock. Toad is delightfully zany (a good call there). But the real star of the show has to be what these writers have done with Princess Peach. In the games, Peach is almost always just there as a squeaky-voiced damsel in distress, just waiting to be rescued by Mario. Here, she is reimagined as kind of a badass. Tough, independent and capable. A truly great character for young girls to be watching in a movie. I really hope Nintendo follow suit with this interpretation of the character in their future games. 

The cast is also mostly pretty good. Anya Taylor-Joy, of course, is great as Peach. Jack Black gobbles up every scene he's in as Bowser. Charlie Day turns out to be pitch perfect casting as Luigi. If there is one somewhat weak spot, it is, unfortunately, the main character. It's hard to see Chris Pratt's casting as Mario as anything other than betting on starpower. His performance here is mixed, and not just because of his inconsistent accent. 

Unfortunately, but for these strengths there's just not much there under the surface. This is quite a shallow movie. There's not much of a real story so to speak and the characters have only minimal depth to them. No one really has an actual character arc. There's no hero's journey, Mario doesn't learn and grow from his experience. He starts off as a plucky, if underappreciated, plumber who wants to save Brooklyn, and ends up basically the same guy. The same goes for Princess Peach, who starts off a badass, and remains so throughout the film. They could have at least added some tension in the form of Peach being initially skeptical or cold towards this mysterious newcomer, Mario, or have Mario start off as jaded and cynical before growing into the hero we know and love, but they don't. There's perhaps a slight hint of growth for Luigi, who starts off a bit of a coward before finding some bravery at the end, but it's all very perfunctory.

You might argue that this is the fault of the source material, after all the Mario games are more known for gameplay than story and have rarely attempted any kind of character development or consistent worldbuilding. But a good adaptation needs to consider the elements of the source material that do and don't work in a new medium and adapt accordingly. The Sonic movie is a good example of this. Paramount correctly decided that simply transposing a game onto the big screen wouldn't work and instead focused first and foremost on making a good film, using elements from the IP. At the time, that film was criticised by many from straying too far from the source material, but the Mario movie is a golden example of the opposite, what happens when you adhere too closely to the source material.

The film does also struggle a bit for trying to fit too much into its short runtime. As noted earlier, the film doesn't completely fall apart into a mess, but it does sometimes feel a bit slap-dash, like a sprint to see how many references and elements they can squeeze in, with little rhyme or reason to any of it. It's good that they introduced all these elements, it gives me hope that there is more to come when Nintendo grow this into their envisioned cinematic universe. It is my hope that this serves mainly as an introduction, and that the next projects flesh these elements out a bit more.

To be clear, this is definitely not a bad movie, but set your expectations appropriately. This is a fun little romp with a lot of bright colourful gags for kids, and nostalgia for adults. It's unfortunately a bit shallow and forgettable, but the real value may yet be realised in how it sets up the future Nintendo cinematic universe.

Sunday 9 April 2023

Developed by Avalanche Software
Published by Warner Bros Games
Genre Action role-playing game
Platform PC, Playstation, Xbox, Switch

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For years, fans have been asking for a game like this. If you asked a group of people what their dream videogame would be, often you'd get a response along the lines of "an open-world Harry Potter RPG that lets you live and go to school at Hogwarts." It's become something of a meme to ask why this game doesn't exist. You can see why. Harry Potter and the Wizarding World is, after all, one of the biggest franchises in the entire entertainment industry, with a built-in fanbase conservatively estimated in the multi-millions strong. Not to mention a fanbase that is notable for its passion, to the point where brick and mortar Wizarding World merchandise shops exist all over the world, with people routinely buying their own wands and Hogwarts regalia. A game that allows those fans to live out their fantasies seems like an obvious money-maker.

Well, they finally listened to the memes and did in fact make that game. Hogwarts Legacy is an open-world action RPG set in the Wizarding World of the late 1800s. In this game, players will design their own unique character, attend classes at Hogwarts, explore both the castle as well as the surrounding countryside and villages, and embark on an original adventure alongside a colorful cast of characters and fellow students. On the surface, it's everything fans have been waiting for.

Unfortunately, before we can really dive into reviewing this game, we need to address the elephant in the room. The creator of the Wizarding World, J. K. Rowling, has taken a lot of heat in recent years for making transphobic comments that have offended many and sparked an outraged response, to the extent that many have called for a boycott of all things Potter-related, including this game. While I obviously do not condone hate speech, nor the specific comments in question, I also feel strongly that the actions of one person do not justify disregarding the world of hundreds of others. Game designers, writers, and everyone else who has devoted years of their lives to creating this game, potentially the biggest project of their careers to date. They deserve to have their work evaluated on its merits, and not have their livelihoods trashed for the bad fortune of being in close professional proximity to Rowling. That is all I will say on the subject.

On first impression, it is surprising and impressive just how much this game tries to do. This game has clearly been designed with the fans in mind and goes to great lengths to provide fans with as complete a Wizarding World experience as possible. The staples are all here. Players can customise their wand in both appearance and various components. Players get sorted by the Sorting Hat into their house (and can choose if they don't get the sorting they desire). Players make friends, attend classes. You can fly your broom as well as various mounts including Hippogriffs and Thestrals. There is a chunky main quest line as well as numerous side quests. You can even play a few games around campus: broom racing, Summoner's Court and duelling. 

This is all more or less what I was expecting. What I was not expecting was for the world to be quite as vast as it is. Hogwarts itself is spectacular to explore. A whimsical, twisting, Eschereque maze of a setting filled with secrets and puzzles. It is everything that Hogwarts should be. But there is also a wide world outside of Hogwarts. Huge amounts of countryside and smattering of villages and towns, all full of various quests and collectibles. Hogsmeade itself is present and full of activities, some substantial, others more for flavour. 

There is a "player housing" type experience in the form of the Room of Requirement, a remarkably customisable space that players can decorate and furnish with all manner of items they discover from exploring the world. Much of this is superficial and solely for the enjoyment of the player, although there is a practical component from the various crafting mechanics and items.

Most surprising is the deeper than expected beast-rearing mini-game. That's right, Hogwarts Legacy draws heavily on the Fantastic Beasts films as well, with players able to explore and "rescue" various beasts, which can then be kept in a vivarium. Beasts can be pet and fed in exchange for various crafting resources, they can be bred, with a surprisingly deep set of genetic traits.

This is all so "extra" that it's surprising the game isn't a sprawling, chaotic mess. There's a lot here, a lot that didn't need to be here, but it's all very well executed and holds together. It's even more impressive considering the developer. With the greatest of respect, Avalanche Software has historically been a purveyor of fairly minor ports and licensed products. They have never come even close to taking on a AAA project of this ambition and scope. For them to have taken this project, and delivered on it to such an extent is a remarkable accomplishment and a huge step up for this team. But there are moments where the seams start to tear, and Avalanche's inexperience with projects of this scale begin to show. 

There are glitches. I've seen everything from crashes, to duplicating inventory items, to randomly falling through the floor. Most of the time the bugs are fairly minor or can be corrected by reloading an earlier save file. Sometimes the bugs do prevent progress, such as one I encountered when exploring a treasure cave, but was unable to proceed because my character randomly floated into the ceiling and got stuck. I will say, however, that I never encountered such large bugs along the main story quest, only while exploring. Still though, this is a console game. The hardware is identical for everyone. There is really no excuse for such noticeable bugs remaining at launch.

There are also a few moments where the game design can't keep up with its ambition. The game is large, but there's only the same three types of enemies, wizards, goblins, and spiders. This might seem like a fairly minor complaint, but when you're playing a side quest that takes you into yet another spider cave for the 30th time, it starts to get a bit tedious.

It's also quite a lonely game. For a franchise which focuses so much on friendship and the adventures of a core cast of characters, there is surprisingly little emphasis on this in the game. Your character does have friends in this game and they are pretty good, but outside of a few specific quest instances, you can't really do anything with them. It would have been nice for there to be more ways to interact with these characters, be it in sports or mini-games, attending more classes together, or some form of companion system where they can join you on your adventuring. It is hard not to feel like something is missing from the experience without that.

The quality of writing is noticeably variable. The main quest is fine, if unremarkable. Some of the side quests are excellent, others highly forgettable. In general, the game is at its best when it keeps you in Hogwarts, doing quests with your classmates and professors, so it is disappointing that there isn't more of this (such as those additional character interactions, as noted above).

It is also worth noting what this game is not. This is not a life simulator. There is no relationship system with your classmates. You can not repeatedly attend classes or go through the student life (as you can in, for example, Rockstar's Bully). I don't want to criticise a game for what it is not, but I can imagine a lot of Potter fans disappointed that there aren't more of these types of things in the game, especially when they've gone to such lengths to add unnecessary immersion in other areas.

But while it can be a bit rough around the edges in places, it comes pretty damn close to delivering on that vast potential. While it isn't perfect, Hogwarts Legacy is an excellent adventure game that will delight fans of both the source material and the genre in general. If these developers can tighten up the weak aspects and flesh out its strengths, the sequel could be spectacular.

Sunday 2 April 2023

On March 30, 2023, a grand jury convened by the Manhattan District Attorney, unanimously voted to criminally indict the former President of the United States, Donald Trump. While the exact charges remain under seal, they are believed to include more than 30 fraud-related charges, including at least one (perhaps several) that rise to the level of a felony. It is a historic moment in American history, but to call it a shock would be untrue. Frankly, if anything about this surprises you, you just haven't been paying attention.

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This has been coming for a long time. Donald Trump's criminal investigations are numerous and it has been pretty clear for a while now that he would face some form of indictment eventually. The only question has been which investigation would get to him first. There is some irony to the fact that a man currently under investigation for Espionage Act violationselection interference in Georgia as well as the attempted Jan 6 coup d'etat would first be brought down by sleeping with a porn star, but as we will soon see, there are very real and serious crimes here, the facts of which have long been established in law. It is no surprise to see these charges lead the way.

It is expected that when the charges are revealed, they will include various fraud charges. It has been widely anticipated that these would include charges in relation to hush money payments Trump made during his first Presidential campaign to cover up an affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, but the most recent understanding is that the charges are broader than that and will cover additional dealings.

While the specific charges have not been officially detailed, there is a lot we can infer from publicly available information. Hush money payments are, themselves, not illegal. Misrepresenting their purpose in tax and business filings is illegal. This in itself would be a misdemeanor charge. What elevates this illegality to the level of felony is where the fraud has been perpetrated in the act of covering up another crime. In this case, the crime being covered up is believed to be some form of campaign finance violation, with these payments constituting a campaign contribution in kind that were either not properly disclosed or that exceeded the maximum contribution limits. Once the official charges are revealed, we will learn more.

From what we can tell, this investigation began with the Mueller Report (remember that guy?). Robert Mueller's report outlined ten instances in which Donald Trump may have criminally obstructed justice, but ultimately declined to indict on the basis that charges could not be brought against a sitting President. It was widely overlooked at the time amid this more dramatic headline, but Mueller also identified a number of other potential legal matters that were referred to other investigators. One of these matters related to potential wire fraud and FECA charges in relation to Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen, which were then referred to New York investigators. These charges mark the culmination of this line of investigation.

How Serious are the Charges?
Very serious. Financial crime may not be as dramatic or easily understandable as some of the other things for which Trump is being investigated, but they are significant crimes for which people go to jail.

How Likely is Trump to be Convicted?
Of course, no one can make any reasonable prediction on this without knowing what the charges are and what evidence exists. That being said, from the information available now, our starting presumption should be that it is quite likely.

There are a few reasons for thinking this. Firstly, this is a grand jury charge. Grand jury charges usually result in a successful conviction. The main reason being that in order to even make the indictment to begin with you need to convince a jury that there is a prosecutable case. Different juries may come to different conclusions, and the burden of proof is different, but unless significant new facts come to light it stands to reason that if one jury is convinced, another could also be convinced.

More directly on this case, however, is that many of these facts have already been established in law. Cohen was ultimately charged in relation to these same crimes in 2018 and found guilty. Even more damning for Trump is that in that 2018 Cohen indictment, Trump himself was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. At the time, more than 1,000 Federal prosecutors formally issued a statement that Trump would have been indicted had he not been protected by presidential immunity.

So it is pretty clear that as far back as 2018 prosecutors felt there was a case against Trump here. I, for one, have been expecting an indictment on this since the day Trump left office and have been mystified as to why it has not materialised until now. Many speculated that it may have been shifted aside in favour of the larger ongoing investigations. It turns out this was not the case.

There have been suggestions that the case is weak, or that other investigators passed on filing charges. This is demonstrably untrue. Mueller didn't pass on the case, he referred it to New York because he felt it was outside the purview of his investigation. The Manhattan DA's predecessor didn't pass on it (in fact he explicitly came out saying that he felt there was a prosecutable case), the investigation simply wasn't complete until now.

There have been suggestions that there is political motivation behind these charges. This also appears unlikely. The investigation, of course, began under Trump's own administration, who clearly held no bias against him. This DA has, notably, passed on bringing charges in other Trump investigations (the asset valuation investigation), for which he was heavily criticised, making clear that he is being selective in his cases rather than simply grasping at whatever he can get. Most clearly, this indictment was voted on by a grand jury, not by the DA. So even if he was a partisan hack it wouldn't matter, the jury ultimately decided that there was a prosecutable case.

So ignore the spin, ignore the revisionist history. These charges are serious, and there is every indication that the case is strong, valid, and will end poorly for the former President.

What is Trump's Potential Legal Exposure?
This is difficult to say without further detail on the charges. But if, as believed, they include felony fraud charges, these could result in a maximum sentence of 4 years in prison each. If there are misdemeanour charges, these could each also result in a maximum sentence of a year, with fines or community service also a possibility. 

The problem Trump faces is that there are believed to be more than 30 such charges. These add up. If Trump is convicted on all charges, he will likely face many years in prison. At his age, that could potentially be the rest of his life.

How Will This Affect Trump Politically?
This is a legal matter. As far as I'm concerned, politics shouldn't come into it at all and so this part of the discussion should not be relevant. That said, Donald Trump is a political figure, one who is currently running for President, so such questions are inevitable.

I can't believe I need to say this, but being criminally indicted will not benefit Donald Trump politically. Anyone who suggests otherwise is speaking a load of nonsense or trying to drum up outrage and clicks. These are the same people who were convinced Americans didn't care about Jan 6 and that Republicans would accordingly romp to a MAGA-fuelled tsunami in 2022 that never materialised. It's not reality.

First, the obvious, Americans in general do not sympathise with Donald Trump on this matter. A wide majority of Americans believe that Trump did wrong and that the investigations against him are fair. Trump himself has extraordinarily low favorability ratings with Americans at just 34%. Trump and the MAGA wing of the Republican party have fared poorly in recent elections, losing three election cycles in a row (2018, 2020 and 2022) as moderates flee in droves. His political influence only seems to be declining.

So even if his indictment does fire up support from the Trump base, his base alone does not appear to be enough to win a national election. The polling suggests that no one outside of his base is particularly sympathetic and it is difficult to imagine that changing. All the moderates who left Trump after Jan 6 aren't going to suddenly come back when he's been charged with mass fraud.

Then there is the practical impact of criminal indictment. If Trump is in the middle of a trial, or even in prison, that is going to reduce the amount of campaigning he can do. No more rallies, no live appearances. Anyone who thinks an effective modern Presidential campaign can be run from a prison cell clearly hasn't thought it through.

The Republican primary, however, will be interesting. Trump's wing still comprises a significant portion of the Republican voter base. So while their being fired up probably doesn't help Trump in a general election, I can see it potentially having an impact on the primary. Ultimately, though, I think this says more about the state of the Republican party than anything else. To be perfectly frank, if Trump's Republican rivals can't capitalise on such a gaping vulnerability, they're clearly in big trouble for 2024.

So despite what the right wing propagandists are telling you, despite what the media's outrage-mongers are saying to drive clicks, sometimes the obvious reality holds true. Being criminally indicted is bad for Donald Trump. To suggest otherwise is absurd.

What Happens Next?
The legal process can be long, this case is likely to drag out for a while yet, perhaps even beyond the 2024 election, but the future looks bleak for Donald Trump.

It looks even more bleak when you consider that this is just the first and, in the eyes of many, possibly the least substantial of Trump's legal exposures. It's entirely likely that Trump will be hit with further criminal charges in Georgia, or for Federal crimes, before this case is resolved.

For now, just appreciate what this moment represents. A man who has, for so long, evaded any manner of consequences for his actions, finally has gotten his comeuppance. Finally we have seen the proof that no one is above the law, no matter how powerful. I've seen a lot of sentiments reflecting on this as a dark, somber moment for the country. But I don't see it that way. This is an emphatic victory for America. This is a victory for democracy, the rule of law, and the fundamental values of fairness and equality on which the country is built.

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