Why Violet Evergarden is One of the Best Seasonal Anime in Years

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In the piles of anime that come out seasonally it can be easy to overlook some of the good ones. For me, there is just too much anime to stream and watch on Blu-ray and my backlog is huge. And sometimes I’m just not in the mood for certain things. So it’s easy to just start off with the latest moé blob show and complain how current anime is in a quagmire of overly cute lolis, isekai, and shonen trash.

And then Violet Evergarden comes along to to show that anime can be original, emotional, and yes beautiful.

Violet Evergarden is a thirteen episode anime series (plus one bonus OVA) presented by Netflix. Produced and animated by Kyoto Animation, a studio with a track record of high quality titles such as the Full Metal Panic series, Clannad, and the beautiful A Silent Voice, It is an anime that maintains feature film quality in every episode.

The world is one that is similar to early 20th century, post World War I Europe. And that world is just recently recovering from a devastating long war. The differences are subtle, ch as the written language and the technology. And of course it’s history is different.

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We first meet the main character, Violet recovering in a hospital from war injuries that has left her without both hands. She is fitted with mechanical prosthetic hands that give her full motor function. Her last memories are of watching over her severely wounded commanding officer Major Gilbert Bougainvillea. One of the last things he says  to her are “Live and be free.” Violet, having been in the army since she was a child,  is used to following orders and has always carried them out without question and often lethally. She believes her purpose is to only be a military tool. But the war is over and she knows no other life. She has a certain naive quality to her about anything outside her world of military service though.

Claudia Hodgins, a friend and comrade of Major Bougainvillea takes Violet in and gives offers her a job, initially as a postal carrier for his company, a postal service. They write and deliver letters at the request of clients who don’t know how to write. She ends up wanting to be a “Auto Memory Doll.” A service where a person not only writes what a person says to be written, but must see what is in the person’s heart for their true meanings. Normally, people become Auto Memory Dolls, because they understand three words, according to Claudia, but Violet wants to become a doll, because she wants to understand the meaning of those three words, “I love you,” the last thing the Major said to her.

The next handful of episodes are concerned with development of several members of the postal service. The series itself is episodic in nature, yet should be seen in sequence for the development of the main character of Violet as she becomes more in tune with not only her job, but her abilities as an auto-memory doll. The supporting characters are also unique in each of their personalities and have their own back stories that are revealed as the show progresses.

Every episode, though self-contained, is a piece of character development for Violet. It becomes clear that when people say they don’t know how to write, it is more of an analogy that they don’t know how to express themselves from the heart. Almost every episode conveys the importance of communicating inner feelings. And it is the auto-memory dolls, ghost writers for these clients, who draw out a person’s true meaning and feelings while sitting with them taking and listening to their feeling.

One of the most unique and beautiful episodes is a of a playwright who is suffering from writer’s block. By this time in the show, she has been able to connect more emotionally with others and  and grown as a an auto-memory doll in her ability to convey a client’s emotions to paper. Through several days of Violet’s time with the writer, we realize that he is suffering from a great loss that he has yet come to grips with. We are also beginning to know more about Violet’s bloody past when she dispatched enemies without question and with dispassion.

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By the time you get to episode ten “Loved Ones Will Always Watch Over You,” you would have been exposed to peak emotions as it is deals with family love, death, loss, and the eternal love a mother will have for her child. And as much as the ending is telegraphed, the emotions still hit you like a ton of bricks by the end. Episode ten even became a YouTube meme as there are dozens of episode ten reactions posted on the video channel of people reacting to the episode live.

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As the series winds up, Violet’s history unfolds as well. Her sad story as a tool of war is explored more as well as her relationship with the Major. And as the series unfolds, she not only becomes more in touch emotionally but must eventually come to terms that is of no surprise to us, that the Major is never coming back even though his body was never found.

Not just every episode, but every minute, every shot of the series is an example of high quality animation that you would usually find in high budget feature anime films. The music, by relative newcomer Evan Call, is not only beautiful in its work but is remarkable for its ability to carry emotion whether it is in scenes of lyrical beauty or intense action.

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Violet Evergarden is anime storytelling that does not fall into typical genre categories. It is not an action show, a romance, nor cute girls doing cute thing, or even a slice of life, and definitely not any of the dozens of isekai shows out there. It is instead good storytelling set in a near fully realized alternate world. Though some of the themes can be mature, it is handled with care and not gratuitous, especially when addressing the impact of war and the effects of its violence on people.

Violet Evergarden streams on Netflix in both the original Japanese language with English subtitles or in a well done English dub. You would be fine with streaming it either way. It also comes Highly recommended.

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Lightning Strikes for Shazam!

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A Little background

The history of Shazam as a property and as a fictional character is pretty long, muddied, and complicated. Reaching back into the days of the late 40’s and early 50’s, where in the wake of the success of Superman, comic book heroes with super powers were the rage. Fawcett Comics created a character named Captain Marvel. It was subsequently sued by National Comics (Later to change their name to DC) because it was too similar to Superman. Fawcett loses lawsuit, Fawcett stops publishing Captain Marvel in 1953.

Fast forward a couple of decades and Fawcett sells property rights to Captain Marvel in 1972. But using the name Captain Marvel on its cover would have been problematic since Marvel Comics already had a Captain Marvel comic. So they used the magic word Shazam! as the title, yet continued to call him Captain Marvel within the pages of the comic books. The public being what it is kept identifying the character as Shazam as opposed to Captain Marvel.

Since the New 52 era of DC, it was finally made official and the Captain Marvel mantle was no more and embraced the name of Shazam as not only the title of the comics but of the character as well. So from this point forward the character will be referred to as Shazam.

And let’s be honest both Shazam and Marvel’s Captain Marvel (though various versions), were not A-list super heroes and were not top seller. Both have been retconned and rebooted (Marvel believes more in soft reboots whereas DC likes huge universe spanning overhauls). And it’s only in the last few years that Marvel’s Captain Marvel title started selling well.

For a more extensive history of Shazam, Youtube channel Comic Books Explained has a great rundown of him as well as the Variant channel.

The Movie Review with Minor Spoilers

The current adaptation of the Shazam comic book does at least one certain thing in the post BvS and Justice League era of Zack Snyder, and that is fully embrace its comic book  roots and also embrace a self-awareness of itself and superheroes. It takes place in a world where the DC superheroes not only exist but they are looked up to. That in itself is a departure in tone from the world darker world Zack Snyder created. But in distancing its tone from that version of the gritty and drab version of the DC Universe, it ends up trying almost too hard in its levity, especially in the middle portion of the film. It is saved by impressive performances by the diverse cast of young actors.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a fourteen year old orphan who has been bounced around from one foster home to another for constantly running away and refusing to get along with his homes. His motivation has been over the years has been to search for his lost mother whom he was separated from at an amusement park. So he finds himself isolated from the rest of the world on purpose in hopes of finding her.

He is placed into a group home run by the Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans) Vasquez former foster children themselves and now running a big house full of other their own foster kids. His roommate is Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) a paraplegic wisecracker who happens to be a big superhero fanboy.

One day at school, Freddy is bullied by a couple of older boys who almost run him over with their truck. Billy at first tries to walk away but after one of the bullies mentions that Freddy doesn’t have a  mother, Billy steps in and hits them with Freddy’s crutch. This prompts a chase that ends up with Billy getting away in a subway train.

In a reference to his classic subway origin, Billy is magically transported to the lair of the ancient wizard Shazam, who has been waiting centuries for one who is pure of heart and worthy of being a champion.

Unfortunately, we already know that Billy is not pure of heart. He is selfish and has issues with empathy. He even informs him that such a person does not exist. Yet the old wizard is fading and a great evil in the form of Dr. Silvana (Mark Strong) is loose and possessed by the Seven Deadly Sins. Seeing that Billy may not be pure of heart but he has embers of good in him, he passes on the powers of Champion to Billy. By holding the wizard’s staff (yes, they did crack a joke about that) and saying the name of the wizard, Billy is transformed into Shazam (Zachary Levy). Unfortunately for him, the wizard dies and crumbles to dust.

Billy, in the guise of Shazam, seeks out the help of Freddy. He has no understanding of what his powers are or what he is, so his best bet for advice is the superhero fanboy. For a good portion of the film, perhaps too much, Billy tries to learn about his powers. All the while, Freddy is chronicling everything and uploading his super-powered exploits on YouTube.

As fun as this film is overall, the learning powers scenes do become repetitive. Even though Billy has great powers and has become a local celebrity, he skips school and basically panhandles like a street performer, posing for selfies and firing off lightning bolts in the air for tips. These scenes do end up dragging the pace down and the comedy feels too forced. The running joke of making up a superhero name is funny the first time, but not the fourth or fifth time. Ultimately, by the end of the film, he still has not adopted a mantle. My favorite comedic moment is the obligatory bad guy speech delivered so well by Mark Strong, except Shazam is floating half a mile away and can’t hear him.

Zachary Levi jumps into the roll of a young man in the body of a superhero as if he were born for this roll. Unfortunately his performance comes across as actually less mature than his Billy Batson counterpart which is played a little more subdued. Perhaps that is on purpose to let the Shazam persona show the more gleeful side of Billy but I am not sold.

It’s no secret that a central theme to this movie is the bonds of family, whether they are by blood or not. And without giving too much away, I must praise the family interaction of the rest of the foster children in the Vasquez household. Faithe Herman especially stands out as Darla, the youngest in the household. Her character has the most charm among the kids and her character is the one that Billy connects with most besides Freddy.

Shazam! is full of charm, full of heart, wish-fulfillment, maybe a little too much humor, good action sequences and is just plain fun. Warner Brothers, and DC comics  may have figured out finally with his and Aquaman, that comic book movies can be fun movies. It may not be the perfect superhero movie, but without a doubt, it is fun. This movie comes Highly Recommended.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is the Right Stuff for Alternate History Fans

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It seems a lot of alternate history science fiction novels revolve around a major turning point in history. The most popular one is of Germany winning World War II as in Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle and SS-GB. Harry Turtledove has an entire series based on the South winning the Civil War unofficially called The Southern Victory Series. Mary Robinette Kowal’s alternate history in The Calculating Stars is not just one turning point, but several. The first is that Dewey would defeat Truman and become President of the United States, second that the US would be ahead of the Soviet Union in the space race.

Emma York is a former WASP, who flew with many perilous missions in WWII, and brilliant mathematician. She and her husband, Nathaniel, witness the meteorite impact and survive the subsequent shock wave. Since Nathaniel is literally a rocket scientist he is semi drafted into services to help at the local Air Force base.

This sets the timeline for the most drastic change in history. In 1952, a meteorite crashes into the Eastern coast of the United states and destroys much of the east coast, including Washington D.C. It sets up an environmental change that will eventually render the earth nearly uninhabitable. It is decided that the current space program be accelerated to colonize space, first the moon and eventually Mars.

In the hands of other writers, it may be natural to come up with grand ideas and scope of chronicling the race to space and tell a heroic struggle to not only survive the changing climate but to also do the impossible things such as reaching the moon. Mary Robinette Kowal chooses to make this a much more personal story. It is what makes this novel so unique and relatable.

This is all told through the point of view of Emma as she navigates through this invigorated space program and the issues of the era, mainly the sexism that stands in the way of not only her, but others women in participating in the space program beyond being number crunching computers.

After what was meant to be a PR appearance on the 50’s era show, Mister Wizard, Emma gets dubbed with the nickname of The Lady Astronaut. Thus would begin an unwanted focus on Emma and the role women will have in the fledgling space program. You would think it’s a no-brainer as do the women in the book. To colonize space, you are going to need women. But it is is still the mid-50s and not only is the idea of women’s lib not existent, but it is even predating the major civil rights movement. And Emma not only suffers from the upbringing of the time with the haunting refrain of  her mother’s “What will people think?” to her own issues of anxiety.

Emma feels she and many other friends, most of whom are former WASP themselves are fully qualified. It of course should come as no surprise that women will eventually get the chance to join the program. In fact there are few real surprises in the book, but the joy is the road trip to the final destination.

The characters come across as genuine and, yes, at times you may feel frustrated on behalf of Emma and a reluctance to assert herself as you know she can. But then you realize we are reflecting back on an long ago era of thought. And also that she definitely has anxiety problems.

Yet as an exercise in alternate history it also is an exercise in real history, of the WASPs that flew with honor and in sometimes dangerous conditions during World War II and the almost greenlit real female astronaut program of the era.

Unfortunately the end of the book, though not really ending in a cliffhanger left me wanting more. Fortunately there is a second half of the story called The Fated Sky, additionally there are several short stories and novellas that tie into the story of the Lady Astronaut series. The Lady Astronaut of Mars, though it was published first, is a Emma’s reflection on her past as an 80 year old who helped colonize Mars.

Not only is the book an excellent read, but it’s an excellent listen. The author also serves the narrator for the Audible.com exclusive production. It is not often that an author can pull off such an excellent job of voice performance (only Neil Gaiman seems to come to mind at the moment), but Mary Robinette Kowal is used to performing. She happens to also be a puppeteer.

I highly recommend The Calculating Stars.

Captain Marvel Flies High

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The whole history of Captain Marvel is an interesting one not just in the comics but in real life. Lawsuits were involved, settlements happened. We’re not gonna talk about that stuff today. Maybe another time.

If you have been following social media too much and broke the cardinal rule of not reading the comments, then there has never been a Marvel Studios movie that had the deck stacked against it than Captain Marvel. We’re not covering that stuff today.  Maybe another time.

Captain Marvel is Marvel Studios’ latest entry into their MCU vault of superhero characters that they have rolled out over the last ten years and over twenty movies. It is not only the first Marvel Studios movie to feature a female lead, but also features what may possibly be the most powerful character in the Marvel comics universe.

It is a not really possible to do a fill review of Captain Marvel without a few spoilers but I will try my best to keep them at a minimum.

Brie Larson plays a Kree soldier serving the Kree Starforce named Vers.  Yes, silly name, especially in light of a proposed real life Space Force. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  Unlike other Marvel origin stories, she is already trained and formidable. But there is something off about her. She has no memory past the last six years of her life as a soldier. She has occasional flashes of her past but they have little meaning and make even less sense to her. Her commander and mentor,Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) says that she is too emotional and must keep her powers, namely the ability to fire photons blasts from her hands, in check.

During a mission against enemy Skrulls who are also shapeshifters, Vers is separated from her squad and captured by  the Skrulls. She is brought aboard a ship and using a form of mind probe, it is determined that she holds the key to a secret power on a planet known as C-53, which is of course, Earth. She escapes them while in Earth orbit, destroying the ship in the process, in a damaged pod that promptly disintegrates on entry. This is where we see her in the trailer crashing into a 1995 era Blockbuster.

It is not long before Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson digitally de-aged) shows up to investigate. Being a veteran SHIELD agent, he is also skeptical about her being some noble warrior from another planet hunting shapshifting aliens. This would be Fury’s first encounter with a super-powered being.

The film becomes a road trip buddy cop movie from there with some nice banter between Fury and and Vers. They find themselves at a secret military base for experimental aircraft. She believes that the Skrulls are after the secret to a Lightspeed Engine and that it is also connected to her memories. While there, they encounter a very special ginger cat named Goose that steals every scene (I’m a sucker for gingers). They also discover, while going through records that Vers was once a test pilot, and she is connected to what the Skrullls are looking for.

They follow a lead to the last person to see her alive, fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). Maria and her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) not only move the plot significantly forward but also provide the emotional connections she needed to unlock her memories as former test pilot Carol Danvers.

This is unique among Marvel films as it does not tell a linear origin story. And marvel, I think, does best when they don’t make a straight up comic book superhero origin story. Characters like Iron Man, Dr. Strange began their films flawed, who have to undergo a change both physically and spiritually. Captain America has a long intro of a scrawny Steve Rogers who transforms into Captain America. Thor has to undergo transformation to be worthy of Mjornir, etc. In the case of Carol Danvers, she is a character who must rediscover herself. And since much of the story is told in flashback it unravels throughout the whole movie. As she learns more about herself, her character changes.

Captain Marvel has the double-duty of being a bridge between Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame but also an introduction to a character that is not really well known outside comic shops. For doing all that, it runs relatively short for a comic-book movie, clocking in at two hours and eight minutes with credits and end credit scenes. With that running time there is much groundwork laid out not only for her story but for a sequel and digging up clues that tie into the rest of the movies.

The film is full of subtle Easter eggs and that tie into existing MCU lore and fans will be pleased that it honors the memory of Stan Lee in more than one way. There is just a slight breaking of the fourth wall, but it’s for Stan. We owe him so much.

This film works best because of the dynamics between the characters. From the chemistry between Fury and Danvers to the believably deep friendship between Maria Rambeau and Carol. Akira Akbar is especially charming as Monica Rambeau, which is a character that has had major roles in the Marvel comics, so it is possible we will see her in a grown up iteration in present-day stories.

Ben Mendlesohn, who is not featured much in the trailers, turns in an exceptional performance as the lead Skrull. It is multi-dimensional and even humorous.

And we of course have Goose the cat. In the comics, the cat is named Chewie and has been Carol’s pet for years. For whatever reason, the name has been changed. Nevertheless, Goose steals every scene he is in. And without giving up spoilers, Goose’s story is pretty much unchanged from the comics.

There are quite a few twists and deviations from the source material and that subversiveness upends expectations, and in my opinion for the better. For the most part it does a very good job of that. There is so much going on that it may require a couple of viewing to let it all sink in. I saw it twice and actually enjoyed it more the second time around.

The movie does several things very well, and much of that is stuff you may not notice. Carol Danvers is not hampered by any romance angle and instead focuses on her friendship between Nick Fury and Maria Rambaeu. It’s a believable connection and contains a lot of heart that really adds to Carol’s source of strength to overcome her own inner weaknesses.

Brie Larson offers a very nuanced character here. As she learns more about herself and her life as a human, she also opens up to us character-wise. So yes, she is rather bland in the beginning as a Kree, but I believe that is by choice. She is an inspiration and the flashbacks we get of her does a very good job of telling us what

Captain Marvel is a powerful character, a very strong one. Is she the most powerful character in the MCU? Possibly. But let us not forget that Thor would have killed Thanos if he had only made the choice to go for the head. She is no more powerful than Thor was in Infinity Wars with Stormbreaker. And will she be too overpowered? I doubt it. I don’t expect her to just show up and knock out Thanos.

The visual effects work well, especially the de-ageing of Samuel Jackson by several decades. Some of them are a bit dodgy such as a couple of flying sequences. Nevertheless, the actions scenes are very well done, ranging from close combat to aerial dogfights. And when Carol unlocks her potential, it is a iconic moment.

Is this the best Marvel movie ever? No, but then you are dealing with a film franchise of twenty films and counting. This ranks as an above average Marvel film. Now, I consider average Marvel films to be Thor, Ant-Man, and the Iron-Man sequels. Considering that average level Marvel movies have been good and entertaining then Captain Marvel does a a very good job of introducing us to a character that most movie goers may not be familiar with. And I am going to go out on a limb here and say that film-wise this is a better female superhero movie than DC’s Wonder Woman, for two reasons, there is no need for a love story and Wonder Woman‘s final act was ruined by an over the top CGI fight that was not only bad CGI but made no real sense.

I’ve been following her comics for quite a bit lately and really think there is much potential to be explored there and this serves as a good opening to her character. I for one can’t wait to see more of what she can do. Highly Recommended.

Alita: Battle Angel is Manga to Film Done Right

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For decades, James Cameron, who was once a wunderkid of Hollywood with successes such as Terminator 2, Aliens, and Titanic, had been sitting on the rights to a manga and anime called Battle Angel Alita. And it seemed like it would never be made. Well it has been a long road but it has finally arrived to us with Robert Rodriguez directing.

The source material is a manga series by Yukita Kishiro that began in 1990. And even though the original run called Battle Angel Alita runs 9 volumes (a manga volume will comprises of several chapters with a page count of about 200 pages per volume), the sequel series runs an additional 18 volumes (15 of which have been collected into 3 in 1 omnibuses). Mars Chronicle is a series currently running. Suffice it to say it is a long running series.

A short anime adaptation was made in 1993 which covered major events of the first 2 volumes. It was through the anime that Guillermo del Toro introduced James Cameron to a video of the anime and it prompted him to read the manga. The rest of the story is a couple of decades of development and when Avatar and development of its multiple sequels got in his way, Cameron eventually asked friend Robert Rodriguez to take over directing duties.

Now, live-action anime and manga adaptations in the west has not had a good track record. The failed Dragonball movie comes to mind and most recently the uninspired Ghost in the Shell movie barely covered production costs (whitewashing was the least of its issues). Speed Racer, though unabashedly embracing its anime roots was a box office failure. Netflix’s own adaptation of Death Note was met with critical and fan disdain.

Japan is not immune to doing bad anime adaptations. Attack on Titan and Full Metal Alchemist were both projects that failed to impress.

So after 20 years of development limbo and following in the footsteps of other US manga to live-action failures, does Alita: Battle Angel succeed?  As far as box office, time will tell as it’s nearly $175 million budget shows and marketing campaign can’t be cheap either. As a movie, though, it is a glorious and exciting film filled with action and eye-popping special effects not just in the action sequences but in the simple creation of the main character of Alita herself. Weta Digital, the company made famous by their work on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings goes above and beyond in the creation of Alita.

This would not have been possible to believe without the break-out performance by Rosa Salazar in a role that is guaranteed to make her star. Across the spectrum, she is being praised for her work, and rightly so.

As Alita: Battle Angel begins, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) is wandering through a scrapyard beneath the floating city of Zalem, combing for spare parts. There he finds a humanoid head and upper torso. Though it is a cyborg construct, he finds that the human brain is still alive. Taking it back to his clinic where he is a local doctor who helps repair many of the cybernetic prosthetics of the citizens of Iron City, he attaches her head to a cybernetic body that he intended to make for his dead daughter.

She awakes with no memory of who she is or where she came from. Dyson names her Alita after daughter. So it is obvious right away that he become her father figure. It is also one of the most drastic departures from the manga.

As far as science-fiction action movies, this movie is pretty dense on plot. And depending on other critics, either it’s too much story, or too little story. So what do we know? Along with discovering who she is and her place in the world she has awakened in, she realizes that she has an instinctual attraction to conflict and that she is trained in a deadly form of combat that has not been used in 300 years.

One night, she discovers that Dr. Ido has been spending his nights as a hunter warrior, a bounty hunter who uses the money earned to help pay the bills for his clinic. Unfortunately he gets in over his head when he is outnumbered. Fortunately Alita’s curiosity led her to follow him in that night. So instead of running like he tells her to do, she manages to take out two of the bounties and wound a third who barely gets away.

Because this seems to trigger bits of memory she wants to join the ranks of the hunter warriors too. Of course Ido is dead set against this saying how dangerous it is. Seriously, this is right after she kung fu’ed to death a couple of psychopathic cyborgs and saved Ido’s life.

There is a romance subplot, the weakest element, not because it exists, but in the way it is executed. Hugo is a young man working odd jobs for Vector (Mareshala Ali), a bit of a kingpin in Iron City. He runs the motorball arena, which is reminiscent of Rollerball but even more violent. Hugo believes that if he saves up enough money from doing work for Vector that he can earn his way to Zalem. Yeah, that’s not going to end well,  especially when Ido says if you are born on the surface you stay on the surface.

Jennifer Connelly plays Chiren, a character not based on the manga but on the anime. The script, by James Cameron and others, makes her the estranged wife of Dr. Ido as well. Her character, as well as Ido were born on Zalem but were sent down because of their daughter’s physical disabilities. Her story contrasts with Ido in that she wants to get back to the floating city and works with Vector in the hopes of someday getting back.

Throughout though is the manipulative hand of Nova, a mysterious puppet-master looking down from Zalem who recognizes that Alita is a danger to the order of things and in true villain fashion keeps sending minions after her that fail.Ultimately it is a way to go from one action scene to the next.

These action scenes are without a doubt visually exciting to watch. Weta Digital outdid themselves in the execution of not only the fighting scenes but in the Motorball sequences. In between the action is the incredibly realized Iron City that is densely populated and has a lived in and worn look of a city that is still recovering from the aftereffects of a war that occurred 300 years ago. The manga itself can get gory and I think the only reason that the film adaptation did not get an R rating is because many of the bodies being ripped or heads being decapitated are machine bodies.

Robert Rodriguez seems to juggle everything well and bring a thoroughly entertaining sci-fi action film that fires on most cylinders. Despite how crowded the story is, and  even though the movie is self-contained, there is still an opening for a sequel. The end result is a movie that literally delivers on the strong kick-ass female led movie. It is also one of the few films in recent years to really take advantage of 3D and makes me wish I had a 3D television to watch this when it gets a home release.

I must say I originally had my doubts about yet another attempt at a western adaptation of a manga or anime. But Alita: Battle Angel won me over and shows that it is possible to do it when you have filmmakers that not only have a love of the subject but respect the source material as well. Highly Recommended

The Wandering Earth is China’s First Great Science Fiction Epic

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I have watched Asian cinema all my life. And Asia, let alone China, is not at the top of my list as a source for science fiction films using hard science and incorporating state of the art special effects that would rival that of big budget Hollywood productions. As much as I love my Godzilla films, the effects have always been sub par and the science dubious at best.

The Wandering Earth is China’s big attempt at serious science fiction. That is something that not even Hollywood gets behind much as much of the science fiction we get these days fall on the more action-adventure and space opera vein. Every once in a while we may get an Arrival or The Martian, both of which were based on written works.

Cixin Liu’s novella of the same name serves as the source material for The Wandering Earth and he acts as an Executive Producer. Liu is China’s best-selling science fiction author and whose Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End) has achieved international acclaim including a Hugo award for The Three Body Problem. I find his writings to be very much like Arthur C. Clarke’s in vision and scope and it is apparent that classic Golden Age science fiction is an influence on his writing. The film, however, ends up flirting with the Roland Emmerlich territory of schmaltz and grandeur.

The film starts with title cards setting up that the sun is in its final stages of death and before dying off, will expand to engulf the inner planets. An ambitious plan is devised move the entire planet to the nearest star to survive. The journey will eventually take 2,500 years.

Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing lending star power and producer creds) is an astronaut who is about to embark on a mission in space where he will serve on space station that serves as a navigator for the earth. He promises to return to his young son Liu Qi that he will return when his time is up in 17 years. It is up to Han Zi’ang, the boy’s grandfather to raise him now.

Flash forward 17 years and we see that half the earth is peppered with 10,000 plateau sized engines with massive mountain sized ones encircling the equator. The surviving population (It’s implied that many were left on the surface and died) live underground near the engines. Liu Qi, now an adult drags his adopted sister Han Duoduo to the surface for no real discernible reason, actually. Outside of taking some kind of joyride in one of the massive ATV vehicles that services the local engine with fuel to burn, there is no reasoning for him wanting to stay up on the surface. They get busted for using his grandfather’s pass and gramps has to bail him out. In lockup next to Liu Qi is a, without explanation why, bi-racial Tim (played basically for comic relief by Chinese American Mike Sui).

As earth approaches Jupiter to take advantage of its massive gravity to help sling it out of the solar system, the effect of the gas giant’s gravity causes massive quakes across the globe shutting off many engines. It’s amidst this that our earthbound protagonists find themselves involved in a cold icy road trip to an engine in Shanghai with a maguffin to ignite it.

Meanwhile, on the navigation ship, the AI has determined that Jupiter’s gravity spike will actually pull the earth in and kill everyone so it enacts emergency protocols that require the crew to go into hibernation. True to science fiction trope and probably due to the fact that the ship’s AI, MOSS, looks quite a bit like HAL from 2001, things are not what they seem on the ship.

The movie goes from one bad situation to another until the end where true to most Chinese big budget films of late, only by cooperation, teamwork, struggle, and sacrifice can the world be saved.

Frant Gwo is not known for directing science fiction or big budget films and though he does a good job of visuals it seems as if he is padding a story that could be told a lot simpler to stretch it out to a two-hour runtime. Along the way will be clichés of the absent farther and resentment for that and a bit of Chinese nationalism. You can see influence from disaster epics from Roland Emmerlich and Michael Bay. But you can also see problem solving as in Apollo 13 or The Martian. The visual effects and set pieces are stunning and it is hard to believe that such impressive visuals were achieved on the equivalent of a $50 million budget. The image of Jupiter and its giant storm eye looming over a frozen earth is a stunning sight.

The script is a bit more convoluted than it needs to be and since it is marketed for a Chinese New Year release, of course several references to the Lunar New Year are thrown in about coming home, family, and hope for a better future. Yes it is very cheesy at times, but no more than any other epic disaster movie.

I do recommend reading the source material as it is only a scat 45 pages. The movie differs greatly from it in many aspects and basically uses the premise and some scenes as the basic core of the story.

The Wandering Earth is presented mainly in Mandarin with smatterings of other international languages like Russian, French, even Malay. The English subtitles are well done for the most part except for just a couple of syntax errors. And to reach an even wider Chinese audience, Chinese subtitles are above the English ones for non-Mandarin speakers. It is on its way to becoming either the biggest or second biggest grossing Chinese film ever.

It is not a perfect film but it is epic in scope and quite an achievement visually and its core story is quite good even if some of the dialogue can come across as corny. It is worth seeing in the theater for the visuals alone. Recommended.

 

Review: Doctor Who – The Thirteenth Doctor

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“It’s About Time” proclaimed the tagline for the new season of Doctor Who. It is of course a play on words as the Doctor travels throughout time and space but is also for the first time to be portrayed by a woman. The new season would also herald the departure of long time showrunner, Stephen Moffat and usher in a new showrunner and writers. They also made a conscious and public decision to use original stories without old villains returning such as the Daleks, or Cybermen. In a way, all those changes stacked the deck against them. Anytime there is a new Doctor there is some kind of resistance and with the decision to finally cast a woman in the role, the internet being what it is unleashed its army of trolls.

So is this the best that the Doctor has ever been? No, not really. But it has potential. Hopefully that potential gets realized in later seasons. Is it so bad that it killed your dog and you have to go John Wick on the producers? No, far from it. But it has had some freshman problems mostly in consistent writing. Rather than totally recap all episodes I’m going to go over some of the highs and lows of the season and my overall impressions of the new season and Doctor.

The season started off well enough with the introduction of the new Doctor and an ensemble cast of companions in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.” There’s some regeneration confusion and head wonkiness on the Doctor’s (Jodie Whittaker) part. Graham (Bradley Walsh) is a bus driver, married to Ryan’s (Tosin Cole) grandmother. There is a bit of distance between them as they are not really related. And Yasmin (Mandip Gill) is a young police officer who once went to school with Ryan. So not only are we introduced to a group of companions who are relatively ordinary people, there is no hint of them being anything other than that. None of the three seem to be a universe altering objects. Yes, I’m looking at you Bad Wolf, and Clara. They could be any of us just plucked from our mundane world into adventures through time and space.

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The second episode, “The Ghost Monument,” was still trying to find it’s legs for it’s ensemble and is not particularly remarkable as a Who episode. It’s just there. We do, however finally get to see the newly redesigned interior of the Tardis.

I’ve already heaped my praise in a specific episode review of “Rosa.” It still stands as the highlight episode of the season. Looking back on it it, I think it will be considered one of the best episodes of the modern era. It is a shame, however, that they followed such a well-rounded episode with “Arachnids in the UK.”  Slightly above mediocre only because of the guest appearance of Chris Noth or Law and Order fame. The episode after, “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” was more or less a bottle episode where the Doctor and team must avert disaster on a hospital ship. Some interesting moments and here and there, plus one incredibly cute monster that eats everything. But it’s still not as cute as an Adipose. It’s a straight forward Doctor Who episode with some decent science fiction elements.

Going again into the past, “Demons of the Punjab” feels almost like a spiritual successor to the excellent Rose-centric “Father’s Day” episode. Yaz not only explores her family’s past but along with the rest of the Tardis gang explores the very bloody day of Partition Day, when India and Pakistan split into two nations. There  was a little bit of hand holding for “Rosa,” for European audiences, but Partition Day seems very much a part of British history and its repercussions are still felt today. Like Rosa, it presents a set moment in time which can not be interfered with by the Doctor and her companions. And for Yaz, making sure history plays out as it is supposed to is personal. Like “Rosa,” “Demons of the Punjab” also has them be a part of that history as well. It addresses the often paradoxical appearance of time travelers as not just participants but as part of the history itself. In the end, it is implied that they were always there as part of history. After “Rosa” this is my favorite episode because it deals with drama that is grounded and relatable. It also has some nice interactions with Yaz’s family.

I think that after “Demons of the Punjab,” the series starts to gain its full legs. The writing is sharper. After a rather amusing episode called “Kerblam,” a little lark taking a few stabs at Amazon shipping and their warehouses, we get “The Witchfinders.” It’s a well done monster episode, also taking place in the past, this time where the Tardis team gets to actually change a few things. They are in a period where suspected witches are persecuted and even King James I makes an appearance for good measure. It is also the first time that sexism actually becomes an issue since King James does not believe in the Doctor’s authority with her usual magic ID papers. Graham, as the older white male, ends up playing the role of Witchfinder General, a sort of bigshot inquisitor who hunts witches.

The character interactions evolve more especially between Ryan and Graham in the surreal “It Takes You Away.” Ryan has father issues from his father not being around especially after the death of his mother. He is also a bit resentful of Graham marrying his grandmother not because of race, but because he is trying to be a father figure to Ryan. Graham, himself has had trouble coming to grips with the death of his wife, Grace who we last saw in the first episode of the season. It is ultimately an episode about loss of those whom we love and how we so often wish they were back with us. It’s deals with those last vestiges of grief, the final goodbyes that many of us wish we had.

The season closes out with “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” a mouthful of words for a fairly decent episode where we come full circle and are confronted with the return of the villain from the first episode., Tzim-Sha. The Doctor just calls him Tim Shaw. Tim Shaw makes for menacing enough monster though a bit generic. The science fiction elements of it are rather interesting with the incredibly powerful and religious Ux. Graham seems to complete his character arc of the season as he starts out by saying that he intends to kill Tim Shaw the first chance he gets. He eventually is the one that makes a choice in what sort of justice must be served.

Now it has become a bit of a tradition in modern Who to have a Christmas Special. So not surprisingly many fans were upset that they did a New Year Special instead. Give me a break, people. Find something else to complain about. The special, “Resolution,” brings in a new year and an old villain. No surprise it’s a Dalek. Apparently a scout Dalek that was defeated in the 9th Century resurrects and is trying to communicate to the fleet. The Doctor and team try to stop it. It works really well as a Dalek episode. For half the episode, it is in its flesh gob form and is controlling a human’s mind and body which is something new and unnerving at the same time. It’s mechanical body is a bit more imposing, not as sleek as modern ones, as it is cobbled together from whatever it can get. The special also features an appearance by Ryan’s father in which we get some closure on the character arc of Ryan.

Right up front, Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor and her new companions have a great dynamic together and chemistry. Also instead of waiting around always parroting,”Don’t worry, the Doctor will save us,” they work as a team or “fam” as the Doctor sometimes calls them. There is a deliberate emphasis on character development for the season which allows us to get to know them not only as empty cups to be filled by whatever the showrunners feel like making them from week to week. The companions, as I’ve said, up until meeting the Doctor have led fairly mundane lives, but the call to adventure and to make some sort of difference in the universe is very convincing.

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Jodie Whittaker brings delight to the show and a sense of wonderment as well. That is something that has been lacking lately.  As we go on this journey with her, we experience that joy as well. Sure there is danger but there is good in what she does, and it looks like she is having fun doing it. For the most part, anyway. Exception given for Daleks.

The episodic nature of the season does away with seasonal story arcs of the past and for the most part it works. But it’s a double-edged sword. Episodes are wrapped up neatly at the end and sometimes the writing shows that a nice tidy conclusion must happen, and it must happen quickly. It is very opposite of the Moffat era of convoluted season arcs and breadcrumbs of plot clues. Ultimately a few episodes have plot threads that were introduced into an episode dangling or uncluded by the end of that episode.

The shortened 10 episode season did not help the new Doctor much either. Any new regeneration will need a few episodes to get its legs. By the time the season becomes comfortable it is almost half over. And I can see why some see so many shortcomings of the show.

And I must say that as much as I appreciated Murray Gold’s music for the last 10 seasons of Doctor Who, I am quite impressed with the music from the new composer Segun Akenola. His title theme is a bit more evocative of the classic theme than the last few seasons. And although it is probably not the choice of the composer, for years I’ve disliked the sound mix of overly dramatic music drowning out dialogue.

The bottom line is Jodie Whittaker makes a fine Doctor and her companions are very down to earth and relatable. I have high hopes for some improvements next season and I’m looking forward to a few more seasons of her and her fam.

Trivia

I believe Yasmin Khan is the Doctor’s first Asian companion. While checking that, I came upon another Yasmin Khan:

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