Review: Spider-Man – Into the Spider-Verse

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So Spider-Man has always been Peter Parker, right? No? Okay, here we go.

Comic book universes are full of convoluted histories and some characters who have been around forever have been killed off, resurrected, rebooted and remade — it can drive casual fans mad. Marvel and DC have embraced the idea of multiverses for decades. Multiverses allow for different slants on the same characters. There is a universe where Gwen Stacy is bitten by the radioactive spider instead of Peter Parker. There is a universe where Miles Morales becomes a second Spider-Man. There is also a universe where Peter is an anthropomorphised spider who gets bitten by a radioactive pig, thus is born Peter Porker, Spider-Ham.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse takes these realities and combines them together into a wildly entertaining ride that only animation can accomplish. The main reality that we deal with is the world of Miles Morales a world in which not only is Peter Parker, still Spider-Man, but is beloved by the city. Miles is trying to cop with his new powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. He comes across the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker who is fighting bad guys who are bout to turn on a particle accelerator owned by Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin. The accelerator will tear time/space open and allow alternate realities to cross over. The reason Kingpin wants to do this is o bring back his dead wife and son. (The backstory of Kingpin’s wife is fairly convoluted but in this universe she and her son died from a car accident after finding out he was the Kingpin of crime in NY.)

Spider-Man ends up dying trying to save he city and Miles takes it upon himself to take on the mantle of Spider-Man. But the particle accelerator managed to work enough to bring across from the multiverse several different Spideys. Miles first meets Peter B. Parker, a Spider-Man from another reality where his life has failed him. He agrees to tutor Miles on being a superhero so that they can fix the crossed up universe. Along the way they will also encounter a noir Spidey, Spider-Gwen, Peni Parker who controls a Spidey-bot, and the aforementioned Spider-Ham. Together they must fix the rift in the realities or the multiverse will go kablooey.

The sub-plot to this is that Miles still must learn to control his new powers and reconcile his less than perfect relationship with his father, who not only is a police officer but dislikes Spider-Man and thinks of him as a vigilante. Yeah, his life is a little complicated.

The film quite a visual feast for the eyes and is in some ways revolutionary. Sure it is still CG, but there are instances of hand-drawn animation to it. There is a conscious effort to make scenes look like comic book panels, complete with thought balloons. Some of these stylistic choices were a little jarring at first for me as there were some scenes that looked out of focus in the foreground. I thought for a bit we were accidentally seeing the 3D version without glasses. I have been so conditioned for sharp and plastic skin looking CG animated films, it threw me off.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse does not only a good job at being an animated film but also succeeds at being a good superhero film. It is, of course, not The Incredibles. It doesn’t try to be either. And with the success of this, it can hopefully pave the way for more animated adventures of Marvel characters on the big screen as opposed to the current trend of direct to video releases. DC, has been churning out quality animated (but direct to video) films for years. And to this day I still believe Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is one of the best Batman films ever, live action or animated. I’m still hopeful for adaptations of Squirrel Girl or the Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel. The good news though, is that a Spider-Gwen movie is in development with crossovers from Spider-Woman and Silk. So we have more Spider-Verse movies to look forward to.

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Review: Aquaman is Glorious Trash

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Let’s be frank, Aquaman is not a very good move. DC/Warner’s latest attempt at making a good comic book movie starts out a little by the numbers. There is backstory on his parents and how he is half surface dweller, half Atlantean. His mother is a Princess of Atlantis found by a lighthouse keeper after a storm. They fall in love, have a kid and name him Arthur. She is taken back to Atlantis. He’s raised by his dad alone. One day he finds out he can talk to fish in a scene that reminds me of Harry Potter at the Zoo.

Flash forward post Justice League, and Arthur Curry, known as The Aquaman among seafarers is off doing his thing. He saves a Russian sub from pirates. Yeah, it will make sense later why pirates would attack a Russian sub. Not a lot, but it will.

After knocking back a few pints with his dad at a bar, he meets Mera, another princes from “Under the Sea, ” And yes, she has Ariel’s Red Hair from Little Mermaid. She basically says, “Hey your brother is a jerk and wants to wage war on the surface. You are actually the older one and have a claim to the throne, even if you are half human.”

 

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She neglects to mention that she is also engaged to him. But he must also fight his brother in ritual combat to claim the throne. Yeah, we’ve seen this in Black Panther, but this is underwater! Plus it uses a lot more CG. And they have an octopus playing drums. (The musically inclined octopus is in the comics by the way.) This is where I laughed out loud in the theater and figured out DC decided this is just going to be a silly trashy comic book movie. Never before in the modern DC movie era have the filmmakers embraced the silliness of a comic book movie as this has.

It’s a good thing too, because if this movie tried to take itself seriously it would be truly horrible. As it is, it’s full of cringe worthy dialog, flat generic characters, a convoluted story, and an obligatory fetch-it quest for a magical McGuffin. At the center of it is Jason Mamoa, who first got his big break in Stargate: Atlantis. With his “bro, I’m just here to have fun” performance, the film is a ride that takes us from one action scene to another. Amber Heard wavers from trying to be overly serious to eventually embracing the silliness of everything. She has a dress made from jellyfish, really. But she also gets to impale some bad guys with Italian wine.

Other actors seem wasted, however. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes a great Black Manta, unfortunately he’s a villain that is under utilized, and comes across as more of a set up for a return in a possible sequel. Patrick Wilson as King Orm, Aquaman’s younger Aryan brother is about as bland as they come. And Willem Dafoe, the biggest waste, is there as just a plot device as a mentor and to Arthur and a mole in Orm’s trust. It was fun to see Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus. He does come across as an old leader.

James Wan, as director, certainly uses a colorful pallet in creating the undersea world of not only Atlantis but other Kingdoms as well. And his action scenes are like Star Wars battle underwater. Well, it’s more like Star Wars battles than the last couple of Star Wars movies anyway. They is certainly a lot going on and I don’t even want to guess what the body count is during some of these fights.

There is a lot of Aquaman lore crammed into a two-and-a-half hour movie apparently. It certainly felt like it, but I’m no Aquaman expert. Perhaps they weren’t expecting a sequel. Despite how overly convoluted the movie is, it is full of action scenes that never become repetitive. And the underlying quest that Arthur has to undertake feels like a video game quest, going from one point of the globe to another and recovering clues.

So, no Aquaman is not a good movie. It’s a mess of popcorn trash. But it seems to know that it’s a silly movie and because of that, it is fun. It’s a visual feast of absolute junk food.

Review: Night of Camp David by Fletcher Knebel

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For some reason I still remember a tattered paperback of Night of Camp David by Fletcher Knebel in my huge collection of books only for the tagline “What if the President of the USA went stark-raving mad?” Never read it. Probably donated it to a charity like Friends of the Library. At the time, going by the back cover. I thought it was a thinly veiled allusion to Richard Nixon. I did not know at the time the book originally came out in 1965.

Fast forward to 2018, where we currently have a president that some have described as unhinged or incompetent. Let’s be clear, Night of Camp David is not some Nostradamus like prediction of the Trump presidency any more than I thought it was a reference to the Nixon presidency. Long out of print, interest had recently brought the book back into publication. I even received a NetGalley copy even though I had pre-ordered a paperback already.

The book itself is fairly simplistic, maybe even a little longer than it needs to be. A young junior senator from Iowa gets called to Camp David one night at the behest of the President. While there, in a darkened office the President rails about the Vice President whose own scandal the President takes as a personal attack against him. He want’s the young senator, Jim McVeigh to be his new running mate for re-election instead of the current VP.  He them goes on to promote the idea of nationwide wiretaps of citizens. Bells start going off in McVeigh’s head. But the offer of a vice presidency silences those bells.

But another encounter with the President as well as accounts from other people who have talked to him raises alarming red flags to him where he is convinced the President nuts.

What happens over the next few hundred pages is a lot of hemming and hawing between McVeagh’s own doubts and trying to keep things secret until he is absolutely sure. Even the few people he confides in aren’t convinced. In fact, they think he is the one that is losing his mind.

As far as political thrillers, this is definitely political, but barely has any thrills. Senator Jim MacVeagh is not the brightest bulb in the bunch and he is definitely morally flawed with his extramarital affair. At times the dialog is very dated and sometimes sound like an episode of Mad Men.

The situations themselves does come across as very plausible in how other political figures would react and initially refuse to believe that the president has become an unhinged paranoid with delusions of grandeur. The book was published in 1965, and the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967. But Fletcher Knebel was also a political newspaper columnist so we can assume he drew on his background for the material. And at time it reads almost like a satire. Perhaps it is and we were never told.

The novel comes to a tidy end. Perhaps it comes at that end a little too conveniently. Nevertheless it is a short read worth taking with you on a plane or to the beach.

 

 

Review: The Deadbringer by E.M. Markoff

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One of my annoying traits is always having difficulty in starting a book set in a world that is unique and original. This happens more with fantasy book than science fiction. Back in my younger days, it was easy enough reading books set in Tolkien clones like Forgotten Realms or Shannara. Once I was familiar with a new world like Valdemar, for example, I would easily transition from one book to the next in the series. So for me it takes a while, sometimes with false starts but when I do manage to stick with it I can become totally absorbed in that worl. Such is the case with the new Ellderet series by E.M. Markoff.

E.M. Markoff’s The Deadbringer introduces a world that is highly original in imagination, rich in lore and scope, yet is contained in a relatively short novel of about 300 pages. Fair warning about this world, though, if you are expecting long passages of info dumps about history, lore, or the different races of this world you are in for a disappointment. It is dealt out in pieces naturally as the narrative warrants it. For the most part it allows a natural flow of dialogue. But at times a reader may be lost at the mention of a race of beings we don’t really get introduced to until later in the book. Nevertheless, this first book in a series lays out a lot of world-building and lore.

Kira is a Deadbringer, a race who can not only talk to the spirits of the dead but can raise them as well. His people were hunted to near extinction in the Purging. While working as an apprentice mortician for his uncle, his heritage is exposed and son after, he and his uncle must flee Sanctifiers, elite warriors who serve the Ascendency, the ruling power of the land.

From here the book focuses a lot on world-building and on the traveling adventures of the pursued and the pursuers. Layers of background of the world and characters are revealed along the way. Kira’s adventures will have him confront what his heritage truly is as he lost both his parents and his uncle is not a Deathbringer either. His uncle, Eutau, who has raised Kira since he was a baby holds dark secrets that are key his Kira’s past. The four Sanctifiers who pursue them have their own individual history to them. With this being the first book in a series, these personal histories are yet introductions, a sort of tease into bigger narratives yet to come.

The world that E.M. Markoff creates is very diverse and populated with distinct races such as the Ro’Erden a race, distinguished by their gray skin, taloned fingers, and horns, that once invaded the land and were defeated  by the Deadbringers. The Katarus are a warrior race some of whom can forge weapons from their blood. Now how cool is that?

The only real negatives I have is that as the book really gets going with many pieces and characters coming together we have to wait for the next book. This book will that draw you in and leaves you clamoring for more. There is definitely much more to explore in this world and I can’ wait to dive back in with the next book which is due in 2019.

There is a prequel novella, To Nurture & Kill,  that is supposed to serve as a prequel. but until then, keep your eyes and feeds open for E.M. Markoff’s second novel The Faceless God.

Note, though it is currently at a nice price on Amazon Kindle, the print edition is beautifully done with interior artwork not in the ebook.

Further Reference

Author’s Website

The World of Ellderet

Review: Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai

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The average movie and genre fan may be familiar with Hayao Miyazaki and the films of Studio Ghibli, which is a good thing. But Hayao Miyazaki will be retiring (again) after one final film and the fate of Studio Ghibli is uncertain. But for the last few years as other anime creators are stepping up with quality anime that tell compelling stories for diverse ages using the medium of animation. The recent phenomenal success of Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name shows that there is massive talent out there that can break into the consciousness of Western movie audiences. I’ve already lauded heaps of praise for Mari Okada’s debut film Maquia, and although it still has yet to receive a North American disc release, A Silent Voice is one of the finest and most moving anime, let alone films, to come along in years. But it was totally snubbed by the Academy for Best Animated Feature that year. So f*ck you, Oscars and your Ferdinand and Boss Baby! More on that later.

One director who has been consistent in quality storytelling and quality animation has been Mamoro Hosoda. From his debut, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time he has shown not only a knack for creating believable characters but situations that blend the fantastic into mundane lives. Family bonds were explored as major themes during Summer Wars and the tear-jerking Wolf Children.

Mamoro Hosoda’s latest film, Mirai (not to be confused with the new Toyota hydrogen fuel car), starts of simply as a four-year old boy, Kun, has so far enjoyed his life as a single child, meets his new baby sister. She is named Mirai, which means (in a little bit of foreshadowing) “future.” What follows is what seems like the standard trope of the brother being jealous of the new little sister that has intruded on a world where he had always been the center of attention. Hosoda injects his unique brand of fantasy into the narrative.

It seems every time that he lashes out or throws a tantrum, and happens to go out into the house’s yard, a world opens up to him where time and space, and the laws of reality bend to create a surreal experience for Kun. Each of these experience seem to be lesson to him much like the visitations Scrooge experiences from the ghosts. And Kun is going to need a lot of lessons along the way.

Some of these appearances are incredibly surreal such as the anthropomorphism of the family dog, who complains he was the prince of the house and everyone’s favorite, until Kun came along. Sound familiar? Well that does give a little perspective to Kun.

He does also get to meet a future version of his sister. She admonishes him by telling him to be nicer to her when she is a baby. But also serves as the main guide for Kun. Along the way we also get introduced to his great-grandfather who serves as an inspiration for the most simplest of tasks of childhood development, the removal of training wheels.

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But at the heart of all the fancy and the whimsy is a family dynamic that is truly built on love for one another. There is light banter, reminiscences, and casual conversations that ring authentic and is like a window into a real family. Except for the time and space bending.

The dynamic between Kun’s mother and father is charming and comes across as genuine. But since this is mostly a film from Kun’s point of view, Hosoda has made sure that the character is not overly annoying as so often little children can be in anime. Yes, Kun throws tantrums, acts out and cries. But it comes across as natural and not mawkish. And although Hosoda is an only child, he is a father of two.

I think what I experience with my family, such as the joys and troubles in our everyday life, is something other families in other parts of the world would experience as well. Three years ago, we welcomed a new baby [girl], and my three-year-old son just couldn’t accept the fact that he was now an older brother. He threw tantrums because he didn’t want to share his parents’ love. When I saw that, I thought I saw the raw and bare soul of a human being. Humans can’t survive without love. Life is all about longing to be loved, wandering around to find love, and accepting others to gain love. That’s what I learned from my three-year-old son.

Momoru Hosoda, Variety Interview

What we are left with in the end is a film that is personal, charming, and funny. But it is not Studio Ghibli, and Hosoda is not Hiyao Miyazaki. Where Miyazaki goes for grand pieces of animation and themes, Hosoda really excels at bringing out humanity and personality out of his characters. Despite all the fantastical settings, the focus is on family. Their styles are different but they are similar in that they know how to tell a good story using animation. There may never be a director like Hiyao Miyazaki, but there is no director like Mamoru Hosoda either. And that is what makes him so unique in that he is so accomplished, so talented that his movies garner attention on their own.

Mamoru Hosoda has been invited to join the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts, and Sciences. So perhaps he can have some sort of influence on the joke of the category that is Best Animated feature. For now, though, Mirai is in limited distribution and just received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Animated Feature.

Highly Recommended.

Review: Ralph Breaks the Internet

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I was born in 1964, so video games like Pac-Man and Frogger were not retro games for me – they were new and big deals. Now, I wasn’t one of those kids who spend endless hours and weekends in the arcade, but I did enjoy what time I had between school and my teenage jobs. So when Wreck it Ralph came along it was a delightful slice of nostalgia mixing real game characters from golden age of arcades it was a fun ride through memory lane. Ralph, not a real game character of our world, was an interesting bad guy who was basically tired of being the bad guy. And the after hours world of the arcade is evocative of the toys in Toy Story that come to life when the humans are not around. With Ralph Breaks the Internet, we move from arcade game nostalgia to the massive sprawl of the internet.

Six years have passed since Ralph and Vanelope from the game Sugar Rush became friends and things seemed to be going great between them in the arcade. Mr. Litwak, the arcade’s owner installs WiFi, which is declared off-limits to the game characters. The internet is a dangerous place, afterall. So when a kid accidentally breaks Sugar Rush’s steering wheel, the only place to get it is on eBay, but unfortunately the price is a little too high for Mr. Litwak to spend on a vintage game so he plans to unplug the game. This would leave hundreds of game characters without a home, including Vanelope.

So of course Ralph and Vanelope end up going into the WiFi signal and enter the internet in search of eBay and a $200 steering wheel. With no understanding of how eBay works, or even money or credit cards, that $200 steering wheel ends up being over $20,000. What follows is elaborate schemes of trying to make that money before Sugar Rush is put to pasture.

The great appeal to Wreck it Ralph was, of course, the nostalgic appeal to it. With him now in the more contemporary world of the internet, some of that appeal is lost. Of course it is still fun to spot cameos of familiar logos like Google and Amazon. Tweets fly around as their bird icon. Geocities and Myspace are in a sort of Sargasso Sea of dead sites.

The best cameos, since this is a Disney movie, is reserved for when Ralph and Vanelope find themselves at a website called Oh My Disney, which is apparently a real thing. No spoilers since it is in all the trailers and ads, she meets the Disney Princesses. All of them. And almost all voiced by their original voice actress with a very amusing turn from Kelly McDonald reprising her Merida voice from Brave, speaking in such a heavy Scottish accent that no one understands her. Or maybe she’s actually speaking Scottish ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. “She’s from the other studio,” one of them tells Vanelope.

While the main plot is about raising the funds to pay for their eBay purchase, the secondary plot involves Vanelope becoming enamored with the word of Slaughter Race, based off of Twisted Metal. The racing in it is a near polar opposite of the cute Sugar Rush game with a definite grim and dark atmosphere.

There are a some not very subtle messages underlying the movie. Chief of it fcuses on Ralph and his inability to let Vanelope follow her dream and leave her mundane world. Yes, a Disney Princes tires of her mundane world and finds joy somewhere that is totally different from the world she is used to. There is actually a gag about this trope too. The other message is about one of the internet’s darker sides.

One of Ralph’s schemes involve making videos on a social platform called BuzzTube (YouTube exists, so this is apparently a competing platform). Somehow he is able to make money by accumulating likes. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I don’t know how monetizing on social media works but this  guess this makes sense. At one point, Ralph enters a secret room and sees comments. Number #1 rule of the internet, “Don’t read the comments” says the BuzzTube algorithm Yesss, as played by Taraj P. Hanson. Of course they are filled with trolling and spiteful comments about Ralph, which disheartens him.

We can look back at the references of the first film with fondness to decades old games that are still in the subconscious of our collective memory. One thing about he internet is that things change quickly and what we may think of as something that will be around will be subject to the trash heap of history, such as MySpace. In fact, the Disney crossover was supposed to take place in the Disney Infinities game, then the game and support for it was abruptly cancelled.

Yet, despite some shortcomings, Ralph Breaks the Internet still charms and entertains Adults will enjoy it as well as the kids. And to me, that is what makes a good family film.

Recommended.

Review: Zeroes by Chuck Wendig

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It is actually quite rare to watch a movie or television show get the portrayal of hackers right. They are often shown typing away in seeming random on a DOS screen and instantly creating worms and viruses with just a few simple keystrokes. Or they are breaking into international banks and government systems with ease. I suppose if they showed that it was actually a tedious task it would not look good on screen .

Chuck Wendig’s Zeroes seems to strike a good middle ground. It approaches hacking more realistically and not just the breaking onto security systems, but stealing credit cards, trolling, and just plain old research.

Zeroes (or Zer0es) is a deceptive novel. It starts off rather innocuous enough. We are introduced chapter by chapter to a cast of misfit hackers, and internet trolls. The opening of the book rounds up our cast of five characters as government forces arrest them one by one.  They are each offered a deal, work for the government or go up the river. To some of them, it would also mean hurting loved ones or putting them in danger as one has been helping with the Arab Spring.

What follows would normally play out as a dirty dozen scenario. Do the job, stay out of jail. We get the interaction and banter between a group of individuals that really have no reason to like each other. There is a rivalry with another cell of hackers (really only one guy) at the same compound that they are held, called the Hunting Lodge. It ends up uniting them, actually.

A good percentage of the book, almost half of it, involves “pen tests,” penetration tests into targets just to see how deep they can go. Their progress is monitored and logged and supposedly they are graded at how well they do at their probes. It will turn out that they were doing more hrm than they thuoght they were doing. I am remonded of Ender’s Game where the simulations were not simulations.

Yet they are still basically in a prison and one that is not covered by any sort of penal regulations. So, of course, we have a motley crew of sadistic guards who are bored watching a bunch of loser nerds typing at computers and just want an excuse to toss someone into sensory deprivation tank for a day.

Halfway through the book, things hit the fan. It begins to occur that theses tests are not merely tests and bad things are beginning to happen around the world. At the core of it is an enigma that keeps popping up. Typhon. Who or what exactly is it? And just like that, what started off as a sort of techno-thriller, becomes a science fiction adventure with elements of  horror to it.

There is enough action sequences for a Hollywood blockbuster and times it feels like this was written originally as a movie or even a big budget HBO or Netflix mini-series.

Wendig writes his does not introduce any particularly new science to the genre, and whatever complicated concepts there are, he explains everything without talking down to the audience or making info dumps.

But what really moves the book is its cast of characters. Each one of them has a personal history and a personality that comes though in the novel and we do root for our main cast even the Reagan, the internet troll. Wendig has a lot of experience with internet trolls if you follow him on Twitter, an he surprisingly, does not fully demonize her.

In the end, these five not particularly talented misfits have to combine their moderate skills to save the world. Really, they have to save the world.

The book does tease at sequel at the end that has yet to appear. Invasive which takes place in the same world is not a direct sequel. But what we get is a fun ride with a fun and motley cast of characters.

Recommended