Review: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

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Catherynne M. Valente’s Hugo nominated novel, Space Opera, tries its best to channel the spirit of Douglas Adams. And it does so well occasionally but in the long run its homages and self aware attempts style trip it up. What could have been a science fiction comedy of absurdities ends up being an uneven mixture short novel that feels like it could have been a novella.

We are not alone. Yes, there are not only other intelligent species out there in the galaxy, they are not sure if humans are sentient. So in order to gain acceptance into the galactic circle of civilized worlds they must prove they are sentient by participating in something called the Metagalactic Grand Prix – a singing competition. The participants must come from a list of acceptable singers that the council has picked. Unfortunately the list is all full of either dead people or people that are incapable of participating. The only one of the list able to compete is washed up glam rock star Dinesh “Decibel” Jones. The act doesn’t have to win, they just don’t have to be last.

Yeah, so the people of earth have to participate in an inter-galactic Eurovision competition. And if Earth finishes last, the human race gets eliminated and evolution is allowed for the future development of other sentient beings. Dinesh is reunited with his one surviving band member Oort St. Ultraviolet. With no real clue on what they have to do and no knowledge about how backstage machinations can take them out even before they reach the stage.

Catherynne M. Valente packs the book with some very colorful prose. And your mileage may vary, I though it was a bit too much flowery prose. You can forget any sort of science in this science fiction setting. You can, however, expect some intriguing aliens with some really bizarre backstories and unique personalities. But yet it does fly in the face of our expectations or even perceptions of reality. I am assuming that this is a conscious choice to be so esoteric and poetic. It has a time travelling Red Panda. Come on, you can’t tell me that’s not different.

Valente’s universe of strange aliens are without a doubt colorful and creative. Some feel almost dreamlike or straight out of a drunken hallucination. Your mileage may vary. Ultimately though it is a silly premise and while it is inventive, it unfortunately feels like a comedy skit that has been dragged on a little too long. Now, looking on the reviews on Goodreads, it is clear that I am in the minority in my opinion. That’s fine. It’s just my opinion and some things I just don’t get into as others. You are free to like whatever you like. And there is definitely much to like about Space Opera. Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet are an interesting pair that pair off of each other believably as old bandmates that have since gone their separate ways. The prose is certainly engaging but often left me with the feeling of “what did I just read?”

Space Opera is nominated for the 2019 Hugo award for best novel of 2018. I wish it luck. It is definitely different and an interesting ride.

Final Score: 7/10

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The Lion King 2019 – Why? Just Why?: A Review

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GHOST If thou didst ever thy dear father love–
HAMLET O God!
GHOST Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
HAMLET Murder!
GHOST Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
HAMLET Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love, 30
May sweep to my revenge.

Disney has a series of nature documentaries labelled as Disneynature. They have a tendency to anthropomorphize the animals in these documentaries. A recent one about Adele Penguins focuses on one specific penguin as the camera crew follows him around and searches for a mate and lives out his year or so why having someone provide internal dialog and one sided conversations with other penguins and animals. That kinda works in short bits and is funny.

I kept thinking of those Disneynature documentaries while watching the latest Disney remake The Lion King. Then they start to talk, and it just feels off.  Now, there is nothing technically wrong with The Lion King, but it does nothing besides being a technological marvel. Director Jon Favreau had quite a bit of success with the Disney remake of The Jungle Book.

After the murder of his father, young lion cub Simba believes he is at fault because of the machinations of his uncle, Scar. He flees the scene and the pridelands where he meets up with the comedic dual of Timon and Pumbaa which brings some much needed personality to the movie by the midway point. They sing, they trot around, they get revenge on Scar, etc. I mean, come on, it’s been twenty-five years and it’s pretty much a shot-by-shot remake, these aren’t spoilers. But in the long run, Timon and Pumbaa are one of the saving graces of the film.

There are shots in this that are phenomenal and look right out of something shot by National Geographic or BBC’s Planet Earth. And for me, when I see CG animation I can never help but look for flaws and that maybe something can be done better. This is a near flawless movie on a technical level. They photo-realism of the animals and the entire computer created environments is astounding. And the crew who created this world along with director Jon Favreau should be applauded for their work. But technical brilliance can only go so far.

As far as the performances go, the actors are more than serviceable. Donald Glover as the adult Simba is fine, not particularly great. John Oliver does well as Zasu. And believe it or not, James Earl Jones, now with an older voice is even better as Mufasa than when he first voiced the role a quarter century ago. Seth Rogen is great as Pumbaa, but he also is basically playing himself. And Beyonce basically does not really do any voice acting so much as play herself as Nala. Chewetal Ejiofor does well enough as Scar, but they did him wrong for his musical moment. This is a hugely talented cast, yet some of the performances come across as flat. And when that happens, it’s not the actor, it is the voice direction. I don’t know wheat happened in the recording studio, but something was certainly missing.

Even if I were to disregard the existence of the original, at a certain point, the marvel of the computer animation wears off and you are taken out of the realism by the fact that these are animals talking and singing. And it also becomes apparent how simplistic the story is.

Here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter what I or paid professional critics say, The Lion King is going to make a lot of money. Kids are probably going to dig it, though in my showing I notice some fidgeting for most of the film until towards the end. Disney knows how to make money on remakes. Okay, Dumbo was a box-office bomb. But what does the audience actually want? Do they want a shot by shot remake of what they already own on DVD and Blu-ray? Or do they want an original take on the old story. That debate is currently going on with nostalgic old folks like me about the upcoming Mulan and The Little Mermaid. But with stories like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and even Aladdin, they are stories that can be remade endlessly.

Of course there’s the argument to be made that this is for a generation of kids who may have never seen The Lion King. Really? In this day and age of DVD, Blu-ray, UHD disc, and digital streaming? Plus a whole generation of parents that hold the original in high regard? No, that dog don’t hunt. And speaking of home video, this is probably better served on home video because you can just plain stop after so long or just skip to certain scenes you like. Maybe this is the first time kids will be exposed to The Lion King and ts perfectly serviceable for them, at home. Because seriously it is cheaper to buy the movie than it is to get the kids to the theater, pay for parking, get the popcorn and sodas, and multiple tickets than just waiting a few months for the disc. But if you want to show your kids The Lion King for the first time, the original is available.

Final Score: 6/10

Review: I Believe in ‘Yesterday’

 

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The first record I remember ever playing was by the Beatles. It was a 45 RPM single of “Let it Be” and I played it again and again. I was maybe twelve or thirteen with my little AM/FM with built in turntable. I have been a fan of the Beatles ever since. I distinctly remember the time and place when I heard over the radio about the death of John Lennon and it broke my heart.

Yesterday, a film directed by Academy Award winner, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) poses an interesting , and rather bleak idea. What if the Beatles had never existed? Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a struggling musician who has been working the pub and small club scene in and around Suffolk England for years now, and is about to lose all hope and just pack it in and go back to being a school teacher.

While riding his bicycle back home, there is a power outage…a worldwide power outage which lasts twelve seconds. Jack is hit by a bus and wakes up later in the hospital a bit bruised up, and missing a few teeth. He gets some really nice implants pretty quickly, later. I don’t know if that’s a commentary on British healthcare or not. By his hospital bed, when he wakes up, is childhood friend and manager Ellie played by Lilly James.

When Jack says jokingly, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” she has no idea what he’s talking about, but he lets it go. Later, when he meets his friends, they give him a nice shiny new guitar. Appreciating the gift, he decides not to play one of his own songs, but “Yesterday,” one the most iconic songs in the Beatles songbook. His friends are mesmerized by the song, thinking it was something that Jack wrote and saying they have never heard of the Beatles. Jack thinks the joke has gone on too far and heads home. Looking online, he finds no results for the Beatles of the names of the individual Fab Four. His album collection is missing his Beatles records. At least David Bowie and the Rolling Stones still exist.

It dawns on jack that he may be the only one in the world who remembers the Beatles, so he decides to remember as many Beatles songs as he can, write them down and pass them off as his. What could possibly go wrong? He doesn’t quite achieve instant success, and still plays pubs but manages to get a demo disc made and a TV appearance on a local TV station. It is after the TV appearance that he is contacted by some bloke name Ed Sheeran, played by some bloke named Ed Sheeran. He is invite to join him on a tour as an opener.

Thus begins his journey towards stardom as he is approached by Sheeran’s American agent Debra, played to scene stealing perfection by SNL’s Kate McKinnon to sign him up for a recording contract. But left behind is Ellie who chooses to stay back in Suffolk as a school teacher, but not before admitting herself into the friend zone before Jack had a chance to process her confession.

Debra’s plan is to make Jack a viral hit before his first album is released. before long, his songs are getting huge buzz as they slowly get out into the internet. The early release songs are a hit and he is hailed as a genius songwriter.

Yesterday may not be the most original idea. It has probably been done before in other mediums, but this is definitely full of British humor and sweet charm. Himesh Patel performs the songs and plays the guitar with soulful dedication to the classic songs made famous by the Beatles and there are quite a few amusing scenes of Jack trying to remember words to certain songs. Eleanor Rigby apparently is his most beguiling.

Underlying the road to stardom is Ellie’s relationship with Jack, hiding her love away ever since they were seven years old. Jack goes from clueless to realizing that the only thing he needs is love. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can kind of see where this will end up. But even then, the payoff is warm and touching. And speaking of payoff, how he deals with that impeding wealth and fame is straight up fairy tale stuff.

There is no explanation on why the world no longer has the Beatles, or a couple of other things like Coke and Cigarettes. But with most fantasy, we are given the fantastical premise and whether it works for us or not is up to us. To me, a world without their music would be a pretty horrible world.

Yesterday is not a perfect film. It has a few flaws especially with the middle portion of how Ellie and Jack interact, but it is full of charm with of course music that the world loves. Himesh Patel is charismatic, and Lilly James is the perfect girl next door. Ed Sheeran seems to be having fun playing himself. And Kate McKinnon just steals every scene she is in.

Sick of blockbusters, remakes, and sequels? Give Yesterday a spin. Recommended

Final Score: 8/10

Review: Your Lie in April

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Music is a terrible thing…If you hear a marching band, you march, if you hear a waltz, you dance, if you hear a mass you take communion. It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism. So now, what was in my mind when I wrote this? Hmm? A man is trying to reach his lover. His carriage is broken down in the rain. The wheels stuck in the mud. She will only wait so long. This is the sound of his agitation. “This is how it is.” The music is saying “not how you are used to being, not how you are used to thinking…but like this.”

Beethoven, Immortal Beloved (1994)

Note: Almost all quoted dialogue is from the English dub as I feel is not only a faithful adaptation of the intended script but also an eloquent localization which flows more naturally when spoken in English. The result is very poetic.

Within the medium of anime, there is a genre called slice of life. Think of it as weekly dramas or sitcoms. They do not usually incorporate any fantastical elements like magical battles or big robots fighting each other. The is no world saving. What usually makes it stand out as a success is a cast of characters that draw the audience into their personal stories how they interact with others.

Every season, there are dozens of anime series that come out encompassing different genres. The slice of life genre has its fair share of titles and of course there will be ones that rise to the top in terms of quality. Every once in a while, there are titles that not only rise to the top of its genre, but rises above all other shows in the medium to become true works of art. Let us look, with some minor spoilers, at the beauty of Your Lie in April.

In Your Lie in April, Arima Kosei was a former prodigy pianist who was on the track to being a star. One day, after the death of his mother, he suddenly stopped playing in the middle of a performance. His two best friends are Tsubaki Sarabe, a tomboyish girl who has known Kosei since they were little children, and Ryota Watari, captain of the soccer team who likes to think of himself as a playboy and likes the company of girls he considers cute. By the way these kids are the most poetic and articulate middle-schoolers ever. The series is very well produced and is absolutely beautiful to see. It is captivating and will break your heart more than once during the 22 episode run.

Kosei’s for the last few years has been basically wading his way through life after the death of his mother. He emotionally broke down in tears on stage. It is soon evident that the reason for this is that he’d been emotionally and physically abused by his mother to become a great pianist. Critics labeled him the human metronome, someone who plays pieces exactly as they were written.

When he first meets Kaori Miyazono, a fellow student, he is intrigues by her free spirit attitude. Ostensibly he and Tsubake are the tag alongs for a introductory meetup between Kaori and Watari because Kaori apparently likes Watari. It turns out that Kaori is a violinist and that she is on her way to a competition. In competition, the players are assigned a set piece that is supposed to be played as it is written. In this case it is the Kreutzer by Beethoven a piece for Violin and Piano. All the other pianist play well and according to the way it is written, but when it is Keori’s turn to play the Kreutzer, it is not as it is written. It is paced differently and alive with flourish and passion. This annoys the judges who mark her down, but it wows the audience. But is the fictional above quote from Immortal Beloved can be taken at perspective, it is like a heart agitated and exited.

While at a cafe together, Kousei shows some kids how to play Mozart’s “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” but he stops in the middle and leaves after improvising. He confesses to Kaori later he can not hear the notes of his own playing once he starts to concentrate. Kaori knows that Kosei used to be an accomplished pianist and is determined to bring his talents out again. His other friends are all for this as they know he’s been aloof, merely content at coldly transcribing pop songs to sheet music for piano. “For people like us, life without music is death.” she tells him.

She tries to convince him to be her accompanist for the next competition. He is constantly surrounded by the planned piece, with either sheet music taped to his text books or the music playing over the school’s PA system. Up until the day of the competition, he still refuses. “You’ll have me this time,” Kaori tells him. “I know you can’t hear your own notes and that you’re all kinds of rusty. I know all of that. And I want you with me anyway. Maybe we bomb out there. Maybe we step off that stage in defeat. We are going to play. If there is a crowd and a chance to play, I’m taking it. I’ll give it everything I’ve got. And the people who hear, they’ll never forget me. Part of me will echo in their hearts forever. I think those moments are why I’m alive. I was put on this earth to make music, and so were you. So please, be my accompanist. Believe in me, even a tiny bit.”

In his first public appearance since he broke down, he is unable to keep up with Kaori’s free spirited and lively playing. He starts off well, but haunted by the memory of his mother who literally beat it into him to him, he becomes lost. His ability to hear the notes, once again leaves him as he loses confidence. He ends up halting completely.

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The competition is over for them, now. But Kaori merely gives Kosei a look and says “Again?” She starts from the top and once again he tries to follow. We hear her thoughts as if he were communicating with him telepathically. “It’s dark and we can’t see where the road leads, but trust in me and take another step. The stars will light our path however faintly. I know they will. Come on, our journey awaits.” At this point she’s just playing to play. “She moves me forward, relentlessly, like a heartbeat. Her music is everywhere.” he thinks to himself as he unleashes himself on the keys not as an accompanist but as a soloist. One of the judges observes it is like observing a musical brawl.  Yet, there is so much spirit and bravado that even though they are now out of competition, they have the audience enthralled, resulting in a rock concert style standing ovation. “The cool dry air, the sent of dust, my journey has begun,” says Kosei to himself.

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Yes, they were disqualified, and their performance was technically a train wreck, but slowly Kosei begins to open up and try to come to grips with the inner pain he still carries from his mother’s treatment of him.

It is clear right away that Kosei is attracted to Kaori not just for her musical abilities but for how he makes him feel more alive than he has in years. “The girl who likes my best friend,” he even thinks. Yet, he also knows his best friend likes her and she likes him. Yet, Watari doesn’t have a bone of jealousy in his body and encourages him to be play with Kaori. Of course, Watari is a good hearted playa, so of course he’s got another girl. And as par for the course with standard anime and melodrama tropes, Tsubake as been developing feelings for Kosei too.

As dramatic as the subject matter is, there are great moments of comedy between the characters, much of it slapstick and stylized in chibi transformations where the characters become mini caricatures of themselves. Much of that slapstick humor comes at the expense of Kosei, though as he is often kicked, slapped and yelled at by caricature versions of his friends. This is of course played for laughs and stands in total contrast to the flashbacks of when his mother would abuse him both verbally and physically. This may be more disturbing to some than others and some of you may not see the difference between the slapstick chibi violence and the  memories of Kosei’s past.

Kaori manages to talk (i.e. trick) Kosei into entering a competition featuring Chopin’s Wrong Note Etude. As the layers of Kosei’s old pain is peeled away, the scabs are exposed. Hidden within his pain was the belief that if he were a better piano player, his wheelchair bound and sick mother would get better. Yet, we are still watching the deconstruction of a young boy who is dealing with repressed pain, maybe even depression. Kosei’s memories come flooding back during the competition as he faces down the looming presence of his mother’s shadow, and looks toward Kaori for his inspiration.

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In many ways, Kosei shares SOME qualities with Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion in that he has led a traumatized life. His pain and trauma stem from merely wanting approval and acceptance from a parent. Yet, he evolves beyond being the human metronome. He has learned to play with heart and love. It even inspires his old competition rivals.

Some of the elements that make the simplest of stories succeed and resonate is of course is in the execution. Your Lie in April is an absolutely beautiful modern anime with warm colors contrasted with the stereotypical flutter of falling cherry blossom leaves. You can tell that this show was not skimped on. Much of the musical performances on piano and violin look rotoscoped which gives it a look of authenticity.

And of course, the music is from some of the greatest classical composers of all time. On hand are Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Kreisler, and Mozart. The original music is good and as well and has a top notch opening song by the group Goose House.

The writing, once you accept the fact that these are the most eloquent middle-school kids in the world, is beautiful. The dialogue when it is not being comedic, is near poetic in the English dub or even when reading the subtitles. The writing works in subtle and complex ways of proving a narrative and advancing some important themes. Kosei may be just be one boy in an average middle-school. But his story just doesn’t effect himself, his success and failures relies on and effects all those around him, from his rivals to his best friends. His joys and sorrows (which are also two musical pieces used, Love’s Sorrow, Love’s Joy) are deeply connected to everyone.

Your Lie in April teaches us is that we matter to our friends and our joy brings them joy. We need personal connections not only to live but to lift each other up. Koari is the greatest personification of that. We can probably relate to those points in our lives where we fee down, with low feelings of self worth. We are not good enough, we can never live up to what is expected of us. So when Someone like Kaori comes along saying something like, it’s all right, be what you are, live like there’s no tomorrow, it is a wish many of us desire over most difficult of times in our lives.

Your Lie in April has more than its fair share of melodrama beyond what was already mentioned. Some of the supporting characters do not have much of a story arc outside of Tsubake. Kaori’s back story is revealed even slower than Kosei’s and it is not until the final episode 22, the finale that we learn her story fully. And we also find out the significance of the title, Your Lie in April. I’ve known grown men to totally break down in tears by the end of the series.

The beauty of the series is not just the gorgeous art but in the main characters. While some may feel like there is too much internal monologues of Kosei and a few others, it actually allows us to enter into not only their personality but  their souls. It makes the show all the more compelling and we end up rooting for Kosei to succeed.

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I am an unabashed fan of this series and have watched it several times. It is filled with beautiful animation, classical music, exceptional English dubbing, and poetic writing. It says to the audience, you don’t have to go through life alone, there are people who care for you and even love you. Highest Recommendation

Final Score: 9.5/10

Review: Aladdin 2019

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Aladdin, like Beauty and the Beast, is one of the more beloved of their animated films which came during a sort of Disney animated comeback that was led by The Little Mermaid. Two-thousand and nineteen will see three remakes of Disney animated films by the year’s end; Dumbo came out earlier, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is so unique that I won’t actually count it as a remake since it is so different from the animated film as well as the source material. On the heels of Dumbo’s financial failure, Aladdin doesn’t come without doubts, chief of which, how can one possibly replace the comedic genius of Robin Williams as the genie?

Will Smith steps into that role with gusto and brings his own style to the role – as well he should. When early promotional pictures first out they were not very flattering to Smith but, you know, come on, it was Will Smith with blue body paint. Later promos showed him as, of course, a motion capped CGI genie which looked better. The reactions were more positive.

As far as the movie as a whole is concerned, it is a good to above average piece of musical entertainment that can be enjoyable for all audiences. It is however a a near beat for beat remake of the animated film. Which begs the question of whether a remake was even necessary.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street rat who has been on his own since he was a child. With his pet monkey, Abu, he’d been living as a thief, fencing stolen items for money or even food. But he, of course, has a good heart and after just eating a couple of dates, gives his whole bag to some starving children.

Parallel to this is a disguised Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) who is incognito amongst the common people in the marketplace. While noticing some starving children she hands some bread to them from a merchant’s stall. Unfortunately she does so without permission of the vendor and also has no money on her to pay for it. Aladdin sees her good heart and tries to help. Hijinks ensue and a street chase commences. Once away from the guards, Aladdin susses out that Jasmine because of the way that she is dressed is not only from the palace, but a handmaiden to Princess Jasmine. Oh, he was so close too. In true fairy tale fashion there is a love connection between the two. But jasmine has to make herself back to the palace as a suitor has entered the city to woo the hand of the Princess.

Aladdin sneaks into the palace to return a bracelet that was, uhm…left behind/stolen by his monkey. He is also arrested by Jafar (Marwan Kanzari), the vizier of the palace. For some time, Jafar had been trying to obtain a magic lamp from within the Cave of Wonders, unfortunately everyone that he has sent in is consumed by the lion’s head entrance.  Jafar reveals, that he like Aladdin, was once a common thief himself and offers Aladdin a bargain, riches and the opportunity to woo the princess if he retrieves the magic lamp from the cave. Just don’t take anything but the lamp. So of course while inside, Abu tries to take a big ruby.

Yeah, you can see it coming. Cave collapses, Aladdin gets trapped, Genie appears from lamp, allows him three wishes. Through a technicality, getting out of the cave is a freebie. So Aladdin’s first official wish is to become a prince so that he may be able to woo Jasmine where the law says that she can only marry a prince.

There is much to like about the Aladdin remake being a live action rendition of a well loved animated classic. Some of the musical numbers just pop to life on screen with such numbers as “Prince Ali” with his entrance into Agrabah. It is vibrantly colorful and filled with infectious choreography. It also has the look of a Aladdin themed Disney Main Street parade brought to the big screen. Depending on whether you like Disney Main Street Parades you’ll have a great time. Will Smith’s first number, “Never Had a Friend Like Me” is a fun a different take from the that of the late Robin Williams and that is good. Will Smith is very much his own personality and he is allowed play up his comedic talents.

Mena Massoud as Aladdin is charming enough with an infectious smile and a look in his eyes that actually look like they are drawn by old time Disney animators because they are so expressive. He is a competent enough of a singer for his solo songs, but unfortunately he is overpowered in the famous duet “A Whole New World” by Naomi Scott.

Speaking of Naomi Scott, she is absolutely charismatic Princess Jasmine. Her character above all others has had the most changes done to her characterization. Instead of being a shut-in who has no one to talk too except her pet tiger (even though she still has it). She has a confidante in her handmaiden Dalia, played by Nasim Pedrad who not only provides some added levity but support. Jasmine isn’t portrayed as the object for men to pursue, she actually shows why she is different from others. She is smart, has studied not only the politics and maps of the world but has learned leadership from her father. Yet tradition prevents her from becoming Sultan or Sultana. She gets a showstopper new song called “Speechless” which shows off Naomi Scott’s vocals very well. Also, the costume designer must love dressing her as every outfit stands out.

The musical numbers overall are a feast for the eyes and feature energetic Bollywood inspired dance numbers, some of which are very tempting to tap your toes along with. The costumes are vibrant and look to be inspired from various Middle-eastern, Indian, and Byzantine cultures. Despite all the cultural influence portrayed on the screen, though, the Chinese origin of the Aladdin tale does not seem to be present at all. But this is clearly a fantasy story that is inspired by the history and culture of the aforementioned cultures but without using their actual history. It does a better job of not stereotyping characters, but not a perfect one. But at least we don’t get chained up slave Jasmine which just would not was today.

Jafar as the villain has a little more motivation than in the animated film as his background reflects Aladdin’s background as once being a thief himself. Their paths are juxtaposed with the paths they have chosen.

There are several plot threads that are laid out laid out but seem to go nowhere. Jasmine mentions early that her mother is not only dead, but was killed. This never goes anywhere the neighboring kingdom that Jafar is trying to talk the Sultan into attacking is the home kingdom of Jasmine’s mother. There is also no explanation to how Jafar knows about the Cave of Wonders, let alone the magic lamp. It’s also never really explained why Aladdin is the “Diamond in the rough.” There is no explanation of why Jasmine is in the market in disguise either.

Along with our human cast is of course, not one, not two, but three animal mascots. Just as in the anime, Jasmine has a pet tiger named Raja, which is a fairly convincingly rendered big cat. Abu like the animated film’s counterpart is Aladdin’s often troublesome monkey that is much more sentient than any monkey should be unless the Planet of the Apes virus has infected him. Jafar’s parrot, Iago has actually been toned down from it’s chattering wisecracking personality yet can still communicate with his master.

Towards the end, director Guy Ritchie reverts to an almost generic big frantic chase sequence of fetch it for possession of the lamp. It seems a bit contrived but also par for the course for the director that turned Sherlock Holmes (as played by Robert Downey Jr.) into an action video game hero.

Aladdin works fine as piece of family entertainment. It is perfectly enjoyable and whether it will be remembered by future generations as fondly as its animated version will be up to the test of time and the nostalgia of audiences. Recommended

Final Score: 7.5/10

Review: Toy Story 4 is a Fitting Finale

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“…One day I’ll be put on display in a toy shop. I’ll be sold as a gift for a very special child who’ll desperately need a secret friend.”

“That’s correct.” Mr. Bodkins smiled and nodded approval. “It will be a little girl or boy who, if he grows up whole and happy, will contribute something of importance to the world. A special child, as you have said. But this will be a child who has to face enormous problems or who must live through a terrible sorrow…But whatever the child’s problems, you will be there to offer comfort, counsel, and love. You must help the child to grow up confident and loving, regardless of what cruelties the world inflicts on him. Because, you see, this special little girl or boy of yours will perhaps become a doctor who saves lives, or a diplomat who negotiates peace, or a teacher … if only he can grow up whole and happy. But if he’s broken by the tragedies he must endure, then he will never have a chance to make this world a better place.

Dean R. Koontz, Oddkins: A Fable for All Ages

Pixar Studios’ first animated film was in 1995 and it revolutionized American film animation forever. That movie was Toy Story and for better or worse, traditional animation has gone by the wayside in the wake of fully computer rendered animation. It’s been twenty-four years since then and nine years since Toy Story 3 and many other great animated films in-between those movies and the years. Toy Story 3 seemed, at the time, a fitting end to the trilogy.  Andy had grown up and moved on to college. The toys had been passed on to a new child, Bonnie, to enjoy.

We are now presented with Toy Story 4, a movie that even I would say was not asked for or needed. The story felt like it was complete at the end of the third film. It’s actually a good thing to be wrong sometimes. Toy Story 4 does more than any other film in the franchise to examine exactly why toys are needed in a kid’s life and how important they are. Not only do the toys need kids to serve a purpose, but kids need toys in their lives. Sure, it’s mentioned that toys need to be there for their kids but it is not until Toy Story 4 that a toy’s true purpose to be there for their kid is best displayed.

In a flashback to nine years previously, Andy is still the energetic fun kid wearing his cowboy hat and playing with Woody and Buzz. During a heavy rainstorm a car pulls up to pick up Molly’s lamp which had Little Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and her little sheep from the previous films is being given away. It was mentioned in Toy Story 3 that Bo Peep was lost, but not why. Now we know she had gone to another home.

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Now with their new kid, the gang seems to be settled in nicely. But Woody (Tom Hanks) finds himself being taken out of Bonnie’s closet less and less. She even pins his sheriff badge on Jesse. When Bonnie finds herself at a crisis point in her young life, namely orientation day at kindergarten, Woody decides on his own that he needs to accompany her to school hidden in her backpack.

While there, Bonnie does feel isolated and alone amongst a room full of other kids she sits alone feeling alienated and alone. During a crafting session, even though Bonnie doesn’t have anything to craft with, Woody sneaks some random things out of the trash, including a spork. Bonnie is inspired enough to create what she will name Forky.

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Sometimes it is the simplest things in our world that gives us delight and the simple creation from trash of Forky not only gives Bonnie delight but also praise from her Kindergarten teacher. While in Bonnie’s backpack, Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) comes to life. Now for someone like me, that raises some deep philosophical questions about existence and purpose. Like Buzz Lightyear in the first Toy Story, he does not believe he’s a toy. Unlike Buzz, he thinks he is trash and has already served his purpose as a spork and must be thrown in the trash. He spends much of the film trying to throw himself in the trash.

There is a certain formula to the Toy Story films and part of that is going on a trip and separation of the toys. It happens here as well. Bonnie’s parents take her on a roadtrip since kindergarten doesn’t actually start for another week, and as typical for Toy Story someone gets separated from the group. Forky jumps out the window as an escape and Woody, who has been trying to keep an eye on him follows.

Woody catches up with Forky and on the way to the RV park that Bonnie and the gang are at, they have a long conversation about being a toy. Well, basically it’s Woody reminiscing about his life with Andy and with the other toys. Forky does begin to understand what he is, though. He is a toy, and because Bonnie made him and that he was there for a difficult time in her life, Forky is the most important thing in her life at the moment.

Of course getting back to the RV that the family has been traveling in would be too easy as Woody spots a familiar lamp in the window of an antique shop, but without the porcelain figures that are supposed to go with it. Woody decides to check and see if an old friend is possibly inside. She’s nowhere to be found, but Woody and Forky do meet another doll from the same era as Woody, Gabby Gabby with her entourage of ventriloquist dummies. Dead giveaway folks, ventriloquist dummies are outright creepy, and an entourage of four identical ones is a sign that you are about to deal with a freaking villain. And Gabby has a really dark side to her. But she is not villainous for villainy’s sake

Woody manages to get out of the antique store but Forky is left behind. Across the road is Bonnie and the gang and parked by a traveling carnival. On his way he gets reunited with Bo Peep. Over the years Bo Peep has changed, though. Finding her time in the antique shop dull and boring she set off on her own and spent the last few years in local park living freely with other other toys. With the arrival of the carnival, she plans to hitch  ride and travel along with it.

All this time, Bonnie has been more concerned with her new toy, upset that it’s missing. So of course, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) decides to go looking for Woody. Along the way we will meet other toys. A pair of them from the carnival are played by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key. They are a plushy dual of a big bunny and an attached duck, respectively.  Now, Pixar has not exactly been known for their casting diversity and with the comedic talents of Key & Peele, it could have veered too far into the “sassy black” stereotype. In my opinion, I don’t think it did that here. That’s not to say it did not flirt with it. The pair provide some of the best gags and have some interesting plans that involve breaking the toy rules. Listen for a cameo of Carl Weathers as several action figures known as Combat Carl.

In the antique shop, the gang gets some action figure help from Canada’s greatest Stuntman, Duke Kaboom. Another trope of the Toy Story films is the elaborate heist movie plans to escape or rescue another toy.  After four films, this formula has the real possibility of getting stale, but the script and the characters keep it creative. A large part of that fun it is Duke Kaboom who has the most to prove in order to help the gang. Keanu Reeves as Duke Kaboom seems to be having the time of his life portraying what is basically the Canadian version of an Evel Knievel toy while injecting a new catchphrase into the movie lexicon, “Yes I Canada!”

Bo Peep had always been a minor character in the early films. Her porcelain nature may not have been good for the madcap adventures of the other toys. Her fragile nature is actually played for a gag in one bit as she laughs of one of her limbs breaking off and just tapes it back up. And since she was not really Andy’s toy, but his younger sister’s, she ended up being more in the background too. Ultimately it was always about Andy’s toys. But time around, the story tightens and focuses on a lot on not just Woody, but his relationship with Bo Peep. It plays off the little hints of romance we first saw in the original Toy Story.  It’s also good to see more depth to the Bo Peep character and her inherent badass nature.

As par for the course with Pixar films, the quality of the animation is outstanding. There are levels of details here that may be ignored by other studios but are meticulous in its presentation here, such as the presence of dust and cobwebs behind the cabinets of the antique store, or the subtle reflections of objects in the eyes of characters. The scenes of the fair are rendered with such exacting photo-realistic detail, you can almost smell the popcorn and cotton candy.

Despite the formulaic nature of the franchise, Toy Story 4 has an exceptionally strong script. It is very emotional at times and if it doesn’t hit you in the feels at least once, you are dead. Even the Gabby, the antagonist, has a deep story that comes to a conclusion by the end. I think this is what makes Pixar films rise above the rest, the belief in strong storytelling. And the Toy Story films are especially good at telling good stories about relatable characters and their relationships with each other. They connect not only with our children, but with us as adults. And the comedy is still darn funny.

With this fourth entry, this does feel like a a true ending for our characters. But if somewhere down the line another one comes along, it’ll be a welcome friend. Highly Recommended.

Final Score: 9/10

Review: The Rising of a Shield Hero Season 1

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In various anime the theme of being transported into another world, under the sub-genre called isekai, is not especially knew, of course. One of my favorite ones was The Vision of Escaflowne from 1996. Modern isekai, for better or worse, have lately been following the formula of not merely transporting the main character or characters from their ordinary mundane lives and depositing them into a fantasy world. Most new isekai now transports the character to a fantasy RPG gaming world — with stat sheets and leveling up quests.

Most of these shows are trash in my opinion. One show I managed to catch last year, and I’ve mentioned in my coverage of Crunchyroll Expo 2018, was a preview of The Rising of the Shield Hero. This particular show stands above the generic isekai that has lately flooded the industry. Based on a series of light novels by Aneko Yusagi, the anime had a bit of internet controversy which we will get to later but it turns a few fantasy cliches on its head while still following some standard tropes. There is also a series of manga that is adapting the light novels.

Naofumi Iwatani is an otaku college student. One day in the library, he stumbles upon a copy of a book called The Record of the Four Holy Weapons. Believing it is a standard light novel, he begins skimming through it. He sees a description of a world that summons four heroes from another world to battle great waves of evil. He smirks how cliched it is when the heroes are described as a Sword Hero, a Spear Hero, and a Bow Hero. When he gets to the section detailing the different heroes, the entry for the Shield Hero is blank. So of course, magic light happens and he gets yanked out of the mundane world and into another world.

Upon arrival, Naofumi meets the other summoned heroes who are apparently not only from alternate eras of Japan, but from alternate histories as well. For this first season, that fact hasn’t come into play. Each of the other heroes are armed with their perspective weapons. Naofumi is armed with, you guessed it, a shield. In most games, the shield person is a bit useless and has no offensive capabilities.

It seems that the summoned heroes have no choice but to help the kingdom defeat the monstrous hoards that threaten the kingdom in waves. Their only way of returning is by winning. Not only that, they are low level heroes with zero experience. Yes, in the corner of their vision is their stat sheet which tracks their levels and skills. It is determined that they must level up before the first wave arrives and must do so separately. They are each allowed to recruit a party to join them in their leveling up quests.

Unfortunately for Naofumi, no one chooses to join his party initially. Myne, daughter of the King does decide to join him though and they set out to into the world. He acquires some low-level armor and a bit of coin. And after what he feels is a successful day of adventuring and slaughtering orange balloons, he relaxes with a few pints and spends the night in a tavern.

The next morning, he is arrested and accused of a crime he did not commit, the attempted rape of Myne. While in the court of the king, and in front of the other heroes, it is apparent that not only are the charges false, but a set-up my Myne to discredit him.

Controversy One – Let me take a bit to address this as when this episode first aired, there was quite a bit of internet controversy over the idea a false rape charge. Rape is a very  serious real world horror. In this era of Me Too, something like this is sure to generate controversy. And as far as storytelling is concerned it gives  insight to the personality of Myne, who will go on to be one of the most disliked anime character in years. I don’t believe the creator or the producers were trying to make any sort of statement other than to portray Myne as an evil and devious person. If you can get by that, then the anime is worth watching.

No one believes in Naofumi’s innocence and yet, because of his status a the shield hero he can not be imprisoned, executed or even sent back to his world. Instead, he is ostracized as world spread about him about being some sort or monster.

Here is where the show becomes something special. By the second episode, Naofumi is despised and outcast. He is alone and has the entire world hating him for a crime he did not do. One of his few sympathizers is the weapons and armor shopkeeper, who ends up lending him some armor. Since no one is willing to join him, he resorts to acquiring a slave since he can not trust anyone (in this world, slavery is not outlawed, but still looked down on. They are also bound by a spell that ensures obedience.) But because he can not use offensive weapons, he trains his newly acquired slave, a demi-human named Raphtalia to be his sword to his shield.

Controversy Two – Being American, slavery and it’s legacy are hot issues to this day. However, outside of the United States and historically, slavery was treated differently. That is not to say that it was a positive thing to be a slave. In fact, the show even has the most dislikable characters despise slavery. For a much more in depth analysis of the subject, I recommend this well written and unique (it’s a Christian anime website — that’s unique!) and lengthy article at Beneath the Tangles.

As the season progresses, Naofumi’s character arc undergoes quite a change as he acquires more party members. His distrust of everyone around him makes him a perfect anti-hero and at first he does not care about his quests other than a means of leveling himself up and fulfilling his duty as the shield hero so that he can go back to his own world. As time goes on, mostly under the influence of Raphtalia, Naofumi not only begins to trust, but to become concerned for the common folk of the kingdom.

Before long, it seems that Naofumi is left to clean up the mess left after the other heroes. When the bow hero slays a dragon, its rotting corpse begins to spread disease. He ends up ridding the town of the disease and killing the not-quite-dead dragon.

There is much to like about the series, especially the supporting characters. Well, some of the supporting characters are outright despicable. Even though it relies heavily on the tropes of the genre it is trying to subvert, it has enough original elements in it to rise above the average dropped into another world anime. Not everything is straight forward or as what initially as it seems as the later episodes in the season hint at a deeper complexity to the world than what has been seen so far.

Though we mostly follow the exploits of Naofumi, he crosses paths a few times with the other heroes. But being blinded by Naofumi’s reputation and the lies about him they are not automatically trusting of him, even if they do have the same goals. Although, Ren (sword hero)and Itsuki (bow hero)come across later as more open minded and interested in seeking the truth. Motoyasu (spear hero), however, pretty much stays a douche throughout the season.

This is not a grimdark fantasy like Berserk, however and for good or ill it does have it’s lighter moments, mostly involving Naofumi’s companions. But as the season progresses, he does lighten up a bit. And a par for the course, there is a healthy dosage of cute contenders for best girl. The animation is definitely top notch, with well done battle scenes and a unique magic system that does not seem to b confined to any one class. The music by Kevin Penkin is appropriately epic.

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The final episode of the first season ends on both a good closing point and a cliffhanger which is a foreshadow for things to come. At the time of this writing, there has been no announcement for a second season. So if a second season does not happen, even though there is no indication of that, the first season is definitely worth checking out. Recommended

Final Score: 8/10