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

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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

 

Review: Spider-Man: Far From Home

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Spoiler Warning: This review will contain major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame while keeping Spider-Man: Far From Home as non-spoiler as possible.

Spider-Man Far from Home is not just a sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming but is also considered the final film in Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Taking place eight months after the events in Avengers: Endgame, the world is still coming to grips with a world post snap, or “blip,” as it is called in Far From Home. The memory of Iron Man haunts the movie throughout as the world still mourns Tony Stark and honors his sacrifice.

This especially looms over Peter Parker who has looked up to Tony as not just a father figure but a superhero mentor.  And as Spider-Man, others keep looking to him as either the “next” Iron Man or the next leader of the Avengers. Along with his superhero responsibilities, he is also trying to balance life as a normal teenager. This balance is strained as Peter Parker and his class go on a European science trip, which really doesn’t get much science done. Part of that is because there is a global threat from — well — monsters.

The students first see one rise out of the waters of Venice and while Peter does his best to save the city’s civilians without his costume handy, a mysterious caped character appears to fight the creature and appears to destroy it by blasting it with green energy from his hands that resemble Captain Marvel’s photon blasts while also wielding what look like Dr. Strange’s spell glyphs.

The students dub him Mysterio as a play on the Italian press describing him as a “Mysterio” or Mystery Man. It turns out that his name is Quentin Beck, a soldier from an alternate earth, and he has been working with Nick Fury to battle creatures known as Elementals, based on the elements, they had destroyed his earth.  Fury wants to recruit Peter into the team to combat these things. Peter is reluctant to do so as he doesn’t feel he is up for the task plus he wants to just be a high school kid for once. Of course if great laid out plans worked as they are dreamed of, we would not have a movie. And he’s still an awkward dork.

This may be Tom Holland’s second Spider-Man movie, but it’s the fifth time he’s played the web slinger. He’s really come to personify the role now and is as connected to the role as much as Robert Downey Jr. has Iron Man or Chris Evans as Captain America. His performance as both Peter and Spider-Man come across as a authentic teenager who has accepted his great responsibility but has doubts about his ability to step up.

It helps to have a strong supporting cast to lift up our main and they are on hand for Spidey. These current Spider-Man films have the most ethnically diverse cast in any Marvel film and it really makes the setting of a New York City High School believable.  Jacob Batalon returns as Ned, the world’s worst best friend. He is mostly around for some comic relief and a source of distraction for Peter when he needs to get away. Since they are out of their home element, their is no opportunity for him to really be the “guy in the chair.” But he owns all his scenes.

Zendaya is back as MJ. Previously, she provided sarcastic commentary every few scenes like a deadpan Greek Chorus. She still does that, but is also the object of Peter’s affections and a such a contrived plan to confess his feelings, it rivals that of anime slice of life romances. Nevertheless, romance does play an important sub-plot for Peter’s character as deals with his hormones and added superhero responsibilities. Though her character is still deadpan, and dry humored, she brings a certain charm to it which reminds me of the goth kids I grew up with in my high school.

Of course, Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury, a role he was born for. Well, technically, this role was made for him as it was based on the Ultimate Universe comics version oh Fury. And those Ultimate comics line based their Fury on Samuel L. Jackson. Funny how these things work out. Jackson’s is, as always, a welcome presence in the role and brings along Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) as the guys in the chair tag-team for Spidey this time around. He provides the contractually obligated snappy one-liners with typical Jackson panache, minus the use of motherf***er word, of course.

Jon Favreau is back as Happy Hogan with a bigger, more involved, role this time around and also serves as the closest person Peter can turn to for emotional support in the absence of Tony Stark.

If it were any other actor than Jake Gyllenhaal, the character of Mysterio would be a joke. But he manages to not just embrace the role, he manages to sell it to us. For those who know the character from the comics, it’s not too major a surprise what his story is, but it’s more about how and when it is revealed. There are of course differences between the character’s history in the comics as opposed to the MCU, but this fits the movie universe quite well. And for those that were picking apart the trailer looking for clues to support fan theories, y’all got played a little.

The locations from Venice, Prague, and London look great on film and is a welcome change from the almost stale look of generic locations that are so often used in other Marvel Studio films. It really does make the film feel large in scale. And the eye-popping action sequences utilize the locations to great effect.

The film does suffer from a few issues however, one of which is a major dumb decision from Peter Parker that will put himself and everyone he knows in danger. The plot hinges on this, of course, and I guess it was necessary for him to make that dumb move.

With the evolution of the MCU movies, the tech has gone from plausible to near magical and I’m not sure how I feel about that. From magically omnipresent A.I. to spider suits that are magically put together by nano-technology that not just stretches believability but really makes the stakes feel less high is magical tech is going to solve everything.

As humorous as Far From Home is, some of the jokes land flat and romance angle seems to drag at points with what seems to be an unneeded and contrived triangle involving fellow student Brad Davis (played by Remy Hii) for MJ’s attention.

And of course, stick around through all of the credits until the end to catch the two post credit scenes. These two scenes aren’t just little stingers, but they setup major plot points and teases for events moving forward not only for Spider-Man’s future but the MCU as well. Despite a few shortcomings, Spider-Man: Far From Home is a fun entertaining film and is not just a palate cleanser to Avengers: Endgame and close to Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It opens the way for the next phase of movies to come. It comes with two thumbs up from me and is Highly Recommended

Final score: 8.5/10

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Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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Most good ‘fairy-stories’ are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches. Naturally so; for if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them, then this also is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.

J.R.R. Tolkien

While Disney has been in the habit of sanitizing and reducing the fairy tale into children’s entertainment with musical numbers, it has been through fantasy writers that they have retold with more complexity but also been deconstructed, and even subverted. From Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber to Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood and Sheri S. Tepper’s Beauty, traditional fairy tales were explored and retold with the writer’s own creative take. It s good to know that the nuanced mature adaptation of fairy stories is safe in the hands of author Naomi Novik. Though Spinning Silver is a standalone novel, it dips from the well of Eastern European fairy tales and folklore like her previous novel Uprooted. Novik crafts a tale that weaves together the personal stories of multiple women that eventually coalesces into a larger narrative involving the fate of both a fairy and human kingdom.

Miryem is the descendant of a family of moneylenders. Unfortunately her father is not very good at it and lets so many debts go uncollected that she and her family are on the about to go broke themselves. With her mother sick, and her father unable to collect debts, she sets out to do it herself. She becomes quite effective at it and is soon able to secure either coin or trade to take care of her family and provide for them. Using a bag of silver coins, she manages to buy and resell items in the local market where that same bag is now filled with gold coins. This gives her the reputation of being able to turn silver into gold.

Wanda is the daughter of a a farmer who is in such debt that there is no way he can repay it back in his lifetime. He agrees to let her work off her debt at Miryem’s household. While there she is treated more like another member of the family and begins to learn Miryem’s “magic” of being able to count and read. It also gives her a respite from her drunk and abusive father. She is also able to receive extra coin for helping collect debts and secretly saves it to provide for her brothers.

Irina is the daughter of the local duke who would like to marry her to the kingdom’s Tsar. But to him and others, she is not remarkable enough to catch his attention nor particularly beautiful. Yet she does draw the attention of the Tsar for reasons that will become apparent after they are wed. Suffice it to say that though her story starts for us about midway through the series, it helps to tie the narrative together into a whole.

There are two additional POV characters, Stepon, Wanda’s younger brother and Magreta, Irina’s doting but loving handmaid and surrogate mother.

Co-existing beside the main world that Naomi Novik has created is a fairy realm inhabited by the Staryk, human-like beings who have historically raided humans and taken their gold. With them comes bleak and cold winters. Their Staryk king decides to one day leave a bag of silver at the door of Miryem’s home with the expectation that it be returned to him as a bag of gold. Striking a bargain with the Staryk king, will set a chain of events that will embroil the fate of both worlds in danger and will hinge of the guile and bravery of the three women to save both worlds and strike a balanced peace between them.

Novik weaves together a compelling story that feels almost historical in its telling. The human world, though it is completely fiction is grounded in many things based on our world such as Judaism and Christianity. Titles such as a tsar and duke, and Eastern European sounding names draw us into a world that is familiar, but still fantastical.  It is has its roots in the tale of Rumpelstiltskin but Naomi Novik takes that as merely the small base to work with and the end result is an incredibly rich novel of storytelling and character development.

Naomi Novik may best be known for her Temerie alternate history fantasy series where dragons and their riders fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Uprooted, based on Slavic tales of Baba Jaga was the author’s first published foray into the fairy tale genre (Novik has written quite a bit of fanfiction and may to this day.) Spinning Silver has a much more expanded cast of characters than Uprooted and the balance of the different POV characters is handled incredibly well for the most part. It may, however, get confusing at times if you take a short break and pick it up again, You may, like me, initially be confused on whose viewpoint you  are reading. It doesn’t take very long to figure it out though and your mileage may vary on that. Lisa Flanagan does a very good job at narrating the audiobook, but does not make any major changes in her voice work for the different viewpoint characters.

Spinning Silver also delivers a story that does not pit your standard good vs. evil (okay, there is kind of a big evil character, but tell more would be a spoiler). One of the harshest threats in the novel is not only Wanda’s drunk and abusive father but also his willingness to barter her away, at first to pay off his debts and later to marry her off just for more booze. Her situation is only an example of the underlying story of women in this society that rise above their expected duties in life. In Miryem’s case, it is her assuming the duties of becoming not only the provider for her household but the head of the family’s business. Irina has to be brave in the face of dark forces and assumes a powerful role as Tsarina when her husband is revealed to not be the person rest of the kingdom thinks he is.

Naomi Novik has really accomplished a very special achievement in storytelling with Spinning Silver. It is not just a well spun tale, but as good stories should, it manages to get you emotionally invested int the characters and about their fates. The novel has been nominated for both the 2019 Nebula and the Hugo award. As of this writing, the Hugos have not been awarded yet. It is well deserving of any awards and accolades it has been given. Reading Spinning Silver is Highly Recommended.

Final Score: 9/10

Anime Retrospective: The Vision of Escaflowne

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The Vision of Escaflowne came out in 1996 and it stood out for several reasons. It was not the first mecha, or robot anime, that was retro or took place in a non-modern setting, but it did it incredibly well. It had Steampunk elements with its blend of giant robots battling it out and medieval settings and fantasy tropes. Normally this would have been a perfect scenario for a cliched male protagonist. The Vision of Escalowne turned that on its head by not only having a girl as the main character but also making it a robot fighting anime with romance. With music composed by Yoko Kanno and Hajime Mizoguchi, The Vision of Escaflowne would go on to become a classic in anime history.

The premise seem almost cliched now. Hitomi is a typical high school girl with no care other than running track and her school crush who she has of course not confessed to yet.  She is popular, studious, and relatively independent for a high school girl. She likes to tell fortunes with tarot cards for her friends and actually has a slight ability to see the future. But lately she has been plagued by visions of another world that is not her own. While out at the track, preparing to confess to her crush, when a dragon suddenly appears on the school grounds. Fighting it is Van, who it turns out is from a world called Gaea.

Once there, she becomes embroiled in a war raged by the empire of Zaibach against the many other nations of the world. The inhabitants of the world are a rich and diverse melting pot of races, and species. The different nations each have their own distinct history and culture.

And of course there are the fighting mechs called Melefs which are about four meters tall and Guymelefs which are about ten meters tall. These are basically specialized armor for elite fighters and look really damn good in action.  Check out the video clip below for a sample.

Van, who we are introduced in earlier is s prince about to inherit the kingdom of Fenalia, must deal with the aftermath of the destruction of his kingdom by Zaibach and learn to control the Guymeleth called Escaflowne which is powered by the heart of the dragon that he had slain with the hep of Hitomi. Escaflowne is not just any sort of mech – it is powered by the heart of a dragon afterall. It can transform into a flying mech-dragon. That alone is worth checking out.

But the storytelling is definitely a complex mix and stands above the generic idea of good guys vs, bad guys. Hitomi may start of as a typical high school girl and a little too damsel in distress in the beginning but her character growth through the series is believable. The romantic triangle that she is involved in may be a bit off-putting. Cuz we know it’s always meant to be Hitomi and Van.

The production and storytelling really do hold up considering the age of it. And yes, it is hand drawn animation with may seem jarring to some of you youngins but because it is done traditionally and still looks as good as modern anime, it shows the quality and the care that went into the making of it. This show is a classic in animation even in an age where it seems almost every other anime is about someone getting transported to another world, this stands above that because it does not rely on gaming tropes but good storytelling and characters to

The Vision of Escaflowne is available to stream subtitled on Crunchyroll and dubbed on Funimation Now. Note that these are remastered episodes of The Vision of Escaflowne and some episodes are extended. Funimation created a new dub for this release. I prefer physical media, however, and fortunately it is available as a series box set. The series set does have some of the non-extended episodes in the original Bandai dub available as an alternate track for those who prefer it. I do find the new dub serviceable but there are a few voices I prefer from the old dub.

Final Score 8.5/10

Godzilla: King of the Monsters Roars to Life

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I am an unabashed Godzilla fan and have been for as long as I can remember. Throughout the decades there have been ups and downs in the quality of the Godzilla movies, but my love for the guy has never waned, whether he was a good guy or bad. There is something joyful, perhaps whimsical about giant monsters duking it out amidst a backdrop of a crumbling cityscape with no care for how much destruction is caused that speaks to the inner child in me playing with miniature toys. And before anybody thumbs their nose in blockbuster snobbery, consider the appeal of the Jurassic Park films and Superhero films that promise just as outrageous premises.

The first attempt at an American adaptation of the iconic monster was the dismally received 1998 version. It wasn’t until 2014 that another version would be made with more active participation from Godzilla rights owners Toho. It received more positive reviews and as far as I was concerned it was indeed a genuine Godzilla film with the exception that it centered too much on the human drama and not enough on Godzilla itself. But it was successful enough that a sequel would be on the way.

Since 2014’s Godzilla director, Gareth Edwards was unavailable due to working on Star Wars: Rogue One, horror director Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus)was brought on board. Michael Dougherty was himself a huge fan of Godzilla. He was not only offered to the chance to direct a Godzilla sequel but to direct one that featured multiple monster from the Toho stable of monsters. These monsters would be Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah. Needless to say, he jumped at the chance and we are all the better for it.

It’s not often a sequel tops its previous film but Godzilla King of the Monsters does that by embracing its kaiju movie roots and treats the audience to jaw dropping scenes of giant monsters wrecking havoc while fighting each other. Although much of the battles take place in murky or dark conditions, it is never so dark that you can not make anything out.

The plot is clunky to be kind. But if you were to compare it to any other plot of a Japanese Godzilla movie in the last fifty-plus years of Godzilla films it is serviceable. Five years have passed since Godzilla left San Francisco in ruins and since then he has not been seen. Monarch, the not so secret monster hunting organization, has been tracking and containing other kaiju, or titans as they are called. There is conflict with the government as to whether to destroy these creatures or keep them alive.

Emma Russel (Vera Farmiga) is a researcher for Monarch and has developed a device called an Orca (this is the McGuffin of the movie) that has the ability to tune into the frequency of the titans and potentially control them. She puts this device to good use at the hatching of Mothra , one of the titans under Monarch observation. Suddenly the base is attacked by eco-terrorists led by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Mothra is set loose, Emma and her daughter (Millie Bob Brown) are taken. Ostensibly, the idea is to release the other titans to bring balance back to the world since humans are responsible for more global devastation than the titans. I guess that involves killing billions? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  It’s a bit of a Thanos solution, but whatever.

Kyle Chandler plays Emma’s ex-husband, Mark who was once also a Monarch member, becomes involved with Monarch again after his daughter and ex-wife not only are taken but so is the invention she created. His motivation is getting his daughter back. Seriously the family dynamic theme from the last film did not work great the last film and it doesn’t work now.

The saving graces of the weak plot and the script is the talent of the actors who all do well at selling material that is not so stellar. Reprising their roles from 2014’s Godzilla are Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa and Sally Hawkins as Dr. Graham. Look also for Zhang Ziyi playing not only a mythologist that researches the legends that are the historical basis for the titans.

Make no mistake who the real star of the film is. Godzilla is the centerpiece to this saga and is without a doubt a force of nature as he and Ghidorah, the three headed titan have been eternal rivals since the beginning of time. Throw into this stew of monster mayhem supporting action by Mothra, Rodan, and several surprise originals, and you have a kaiju tag-team match of epic proportions, leveling cities across the globe. But this is a showcase for Godzilla, and in this he is not just a force of nature or balance as in the last movie, he must save the planet.

Every single one of these monster look amazing as each has their unique personalities and quirks. It’s not guy in a rubber suit, but it does use motion capture animation which really adds a sense of…uhm…realism to the fight scenes. The titans are rendered with incredible detail not only to their giant bodies, but also their facial expressions convey emotion beyond that of a a raging creatures. Ghidorah, which has three heads, each have their own personality (they don’t always get along either). And this Ghidorah is one huge motherfucker. Rodan is pure menace from the moment it emerges from a Mexican volcano, emitting lava from its body. Its aerial combat against a squadron of jets one for the ages. Mothra, who has always been a bit of a silly monster for me is absolutely majestic in this movie and is possibly one of the best representations of the moth-like kaiju ever.

There are elements of eye popping scale that include the monsters against cities buildings but also from the viewpoint of humans on the ground. It makes them truly imposing and massive. The sheer level of destruction is apocalyptic in its imagery and is almost biblical in its fearful imagery.

Another star of this film is one that does not appear on screen but makes its presence known with its own monstrous presence and that is the epic orchestral score by Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica, Outlander). I’ve long been a fan of McCreary’s work since Battlestar Galactica and he tackles the score with nods to the some of the famous Toho themes by Akira Ifukube while adding his unique ability to incorporate music from around the world such as taiko drums, Buddhist chants, and a chorus in Ancient Babylonian. The cherry on top of this is a cover of the classic Blue Oyster Cult song “Godzilla.”

In the end, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a magnificent triumph of special effects monster action and battles. It manages to rise above a fairly dismal script filled with a few character with heavy plot armor (seriously Millie Bobby Brown’s character should have died several times over). But the real reason one sees a Godzilla movie is for the action, destruction, and monster versus monster action and this movie delivers on that promise. It lays enough seeds for the upcoming Godzilla vs. King Kong match-up next year.

The most positive thing I can say about the story is that it does a better job of diving into the lore and mythology of the titans. Much of this is handled by Zhang Ziyi who has a surprising connection/homage to the classic Toho era. It does provide perspective and if you are like me love world building, it’s very informative. They try to do some other science exposition but that just doesn’t hold up.

This is a movie that is clearly made by a Godzilla fan and for Godzilla fans. It is an absolute love letter to fans and I believe it elevates it to classic status. The film’s only shortcoming in in some of the plotting, but it is an absolute blast of a film. The action is above top-notch and is filled with stunning iconic moments. If you are already a fan of Godzilla films, this is the one to see on the biggest screen possible. Highest Recommendation

Final score: 9/10

PS. Why do soldiers continue to think shooting regular guns at giant monster do any good?