Sunday, June 4, 2017

June Releases

June Releases
The first month of summer has barely set in, yet it's already giving us a swift kick in the teeth thanks to a few film heavyweights.  This weekend alone has offered up two of the year's strongest movie showings: Wonder Woman, the longed-awaited rehabilitator of the lagging DC cinematic universe; and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, the feature film debut of Dav Pilkey's beloved literature icon.  As the month drags on, we'll be treated to another Transformers flick, yet another Mummy reboot, and the sequelitis combo of Despicable Me and Pixar's quasi black sheep Cars.

Check out the other media goodies this June down below.



Movies

Television

Games

Books

 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Book Review: "The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings"





Book: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings
Authors: Philip and Carol Zaleski
NYC, New York:Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, c2015

Mythopoeia (“myth-making” in Greek) is not a word in everyone’s vocabulary, but maybe it should be.  A storytelling device characterized by a rich, densely structured, artificially-created mythos, it has existed since humans first told stories, but filtered into popular imagination today through the efforts of fantasy icon J.R.R. Tolkien.  The Oxford don’s compelling mythic narratives practically built our modern iterations of dwarves, elves and dragons, and we encounter variants of his creations in nearly every drop of fantasy media around, whether they are games, books, art, or the silver screen.  It's no exaggeration to say that the story of high fantasy in the second half of the 20th century and beyond is, ultimately, the story of Tolkien; everyone else is either a mimic, a detractor, or a renovator of his legacy.  

Tolkien’s towering presence in all things Fae is matched only by C.S. Lewis, the famous writer, scholar, and Christian apologist, as well as Tolkien’s friend and colleague.  Between them, they created some of the most memorable works of fantasy found in the English language.  But their most attentive devotees are well aware that the men were more than just casual friends.  Tolkien and Lewis were both part of an altogether higher order - an informal circle of like-minded peers, most hailing from the University of Oxford, gathered to discuss literature, philosophy, and the contemporary trends of society.  These men, “the Inklings,” were a diverse lot, bound only by a common Christian faith and a fondness for the fantastic, but they left a lasting impact in the world of letters and fantasy literature.  The fount of this grand legacy is captured in the wise and well written work by a husband and wife team; writers and religious scholars Philip and Carol Zaleski.  The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is a riveting group biography, chronicling not only the lives of literary greats like Tolkien and Lewis, but also covering some of the lesser known members of this cabal, particularly Owen Barfield, the Anthroposophist philosopher; and Charles Williams, Anglican mystic and delver into supernatural worlds unseen.  The Zaleskis shed new light on these writers, and in the process weave together a spellbinding narrative of collaboration, friendship, and ultimately, the triumph of wonder over the technical ingenuity of their literary peers.

The book’s function as a literary biography lends an idiosyncratic structure in which the lives of the Inklings are accompanied and bolstered by examinations of their relevant works.  This proves a successful showing, though it took some time before the core of this got going. The book's first half or so narrows its focus to Lewis and Tolkien, who are given a very thorough treatment of their lives from birth onward.  It make sense narrative sense, since both Lewis and Tolkien are unquestionably the main draws of both scholarly and informal study of the Inklings: the former recognized as maestro of the Inkling gatherings and the advocate of their place in intellectual discourse, while the latter is crucial to their modern fame and their launch into current fictional consciousness.  The authors cover their early lives, including their nascent years and the deaths which shaped them, and onward to their harrowing experiences during World War I and post-war lives as academics, translators, and writers.  The narrative grabs you like a fantasy epic, one informed by personal letters and reflections, and leaves you following the trail of these “characters” as you would any of their fictional creations: Lewis’s climb from atheism to “mere Christianity,” Tolkien’s dealings with a national and intellectual environment hostile to his beloved Catholicism, and the manner in which both men confront the materialism and skepticism rife in their surroundings with faith and humor.  My only issues is that the two other foci, Barfield and Williams, are given comparatively skimpy treatments, their stories subject to curt summation in the space of a chapter or two, with the importance of their roles initially limited to their relationships to Lewis.

But soon after the Inklings formed, the book really hits its stride, seamlessly integrating the great works by these men and the corresponding life events that shaped them.  They come alive as  personalities along with their highs and lows, and the Zaleskis’ lively prose keeps things moving along in a well-plodded pace.  The language can get a little flowery at places, but that minor quibble pales before the passion clearly shown for their subjects on every page.  Likewise, some important aspects of the Inklings' private lives are left curiously unexamined, like the tensions between Tolkien and his wife Edith over his religion, or details of Lewis's courtship with and eventual marriage to American writer Joy Davidman - which seems odd, considering the amount of detailed they poured into many other areas.  That said, the final analysis reads like a clear and balanced apologia of Inklings’ place in literary history: though lacking either the stylistic sophistication of their modernist contemporaries, or the thorough mastery of technical argumentation present among academic theologians and philosophers, they were able to tap into a sense of wonder and joy clear only to unjaded eyes, and in the process shaped the face of modern fantasy fiction - and will likely continue to do so for many years to come.

Recommendation: Must Read

Saturday, May 6, 2017

"Power Rangers": current confusions and future directions for a franchise-to-be



When Saban’s Power Rangers reboot stormed into theaters a few weeks back, I met it with an almost glacial indifference.  I don't hate the franchise, and I never did; I grew up during its heyday, and even I offered my share of terrible karate mimicry along with my nerdy peers back when it was all the rage.  But puberty had scoured all the morphing out of me, and for a long while, I paid no heed to its numerous derivatives.  My misgivings only grew after seeing the movie's trailer, which gave off the disjointed self-awareness so typical of children's properties that make a stab at the "darker and edgier" route.  Still, I walked in expecting little more than a harmless trip down nostalgia lane, filled with Super Sentai camp and buckets of cheese, and framed by a superficial mantle of "relevance."  

But walking out, I'm honestly not sure what I watched. I can't say Power Rangers is bad per se,but it is certainly a film asunder, blowing its energies and potential in a confused effort to appeal to multiple tastes and maturity levels.  The tumult wobbles back and forth throughout the movie, channeling The Breakfast Club and its teenage angst one minute, before indulging in wacky, Ferris Bueller-esque night time romps al la Jason and Billy the next, and then bringing it all home with the now standard superhero assemblages seen in the MCU.  And all the while, we're exposed to a strange comedy chop suey, with adult-leaning jokes embedded in campy, adolescent humor ripped straight from the days when Jason David Frank reigned as undisputed king of the spandex brigade.  

It’s Crowded in Here…

The problems with Power Rangers began before the movie even came out.  Back when the original series and first film premiered, big screen superhero options for children were virtually nonexistent.  The exposure most of us had to the DC and Marvel worlds beyond the comics was through their sanitized and poorly animated treatments on the boob tube, so the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers was a unique treat for restless kids starved of high-flying martial arts action in the flesh.  But those days are long gone, and the advent of the MCU and its host of rounded characters and sensible plot lines gives us little reason to long for the quaint nonsense of past Power Ranger glory.  It doesn’t help that standards of what are considered "acceptable" levels of violence and maturity have shifted considerably since the 1990s.  It's almost laughable to modern audiences to discover that the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers incited such a row among parents when it first came out due to its supposedly violent content.  With stylized hyper-violence now endemic in PG and PG-13 hero films, the conflicts so assaulted before look positively feeble in comparison.  While I don’t fully agree with Variety critic Owen Gleiberman’s damning assessment of the movie, it’s hard to argue with his central claim: with so many options on the table these days, children no longer need “safe, lame and pandering” heroes to occupy them.

Who’s movie is it, anyway?

But Gleiderman does drop one other, largely unexamined hint.  We shouldn’t assume that Power Rangers was strictly for kids, and certainly the theater I attended was packed with adults who, like me, still remember halcyon days of reenacting the zords and Kung Fu action with exuberant delight.  These kids were now parents themselves, bringing their little ones along on nostalgia high to relive their own joys.  And therein lies the problem; Power Rangers didn't do a good enough job communicating who, exactly, it was targeting.  Children?  Too many mature themes and veiled masturbation jokes - and at least for the Russians, lesbians.  The adults?  While the nostalgia crowd swarmed in rank and file, I doubt even they knew what to expect from this reboot.  The confusion is very evident in the film’s execution, where the aforementioned mood swings threw off the narrative flow quite a bit.  While the awkwardly cobbled together display did little to beat down the most stalwart devotees (moviegoers gave Power Rangers, on average, a far higher rating than critics) minus an adjustment made for lowered expectations, Saban’s morphing quintet remained locked in a centrifugal trap, their potential wasted in a fruitless attempt to go everywhere at once.

Silver Linings

My gentle condemnations probably wouldn’t amount to much if this was the end of the line.  However, since Saban insists on spreading his reboot into a six-movie story arc despite the relatively lackluster return in theaters, this might not be the last time we see Jason and the gang karate chopping evil on the big screen.  Is there any hope, then, to see the series rise above superhero mediocrity?  Perhaps, and the key lies in the film’s tight-knit cast and how they skew the usual Power Rangers formula.  In most forms in the franchise, our leading heroes are generally Grade A all-Americans - proficient in martial arts, mostly well-liked, and seated firmly in the high school hierarchy, with every stereotype that implies.  Sure, there is "diversity," in a manner of speaking, but it's only skin deep - expressed in ethnicity, but not in individual lived experiences.  But things are different this time around; our would-be Rangers are the quintessential rag-tag group of misfits, each with their own burdens to bear.  Jason is a fallen hero, now condemned to house arrest; Kimberly is a cyberbully, and Billy, in a surprisingly convincing portrayal, is autistic - a superhero first, along with Becky G’s Trini, a girl who, if not outright lesbian, is certainly questioning her sexuality.  Last but not least is Zack, who in a welcomed departure from his 90s Cool Black Friend depiction, is a bilingual Chinese-American, saddled with a sick mother who is the fount of his outlandish and at times unstable behavior.  It’s easy to criticize how Power Rangers handled this - the schizophrenic implementation, the lopsided execution - but you can’t deny that the very ideas themselves are groundbreaking.  Even with the diversity of hero flicks out these days, the trials and tribulations of teen heroes - not counting Spider-Man - are still rare on the big screen, and this push for “relevance,” which too often ends in abysmal failure, may point a way through the swamp of camp and string cheese miring the Power Rangers franchise as a whole.

So What Now?

So how can the future films avoid the pitfalls of confusion and contradiction that plague this first entry?   Keep the focus on the kids and their struggles.  The mood should be kept light, to resist the false luster of escalating angst in the name of “art.”  But they should respect the issues which arise naturally from such an eclectic mix of teenagers, as opposed to discarding them to the dustbin of mere superficial diversity.  How far can they take Trini’s burgeoning sexuality?  Will Billy’s autism ever become an actual issue to deal with on the field?  Does Kimberly still have a bit of the mean girl in her, and could this taint her interactions with her newfound friends?  All this and more are ripe for exploration, highlighting the difficult transitions we all face as we graduate from youth to adulthood - learning to get along, opening up to others, and collaborating into a functional unit much greater than the sums of our flaws and insecurities.

Is this a pretentious aspiration, especially in a franchise associated with kicking aliens in the face?  Maybe.  I say it's worth an attempt ether way, otherwise don't bother making characters with that degree of depth in the first place. While this might run the risk of alienating fans who wish only to relive past glories of martial madness across galaxies, it may yet open the door to a longer lived and, perhaps, more satisfying film series.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

May Releases

May Releases

So April's showers have left a few puddles in their wake.  Will May bring the expected late spring blooms?  If so, they're already off to a good start, with Guardian of the Galaxies Vol. 2 storming into theaters this coming Friday.  Tailing close behind is Alien: Covenant, the follow-up to Ridley Scott's Prometheus and another notch in his pre-Alien prequel series.  And, of course, the obligatory sequelitis diagnosis rounds out the big-name movies, with the latest Pirates of the Caribbean and Diary of a Wimpy Kid hedging in the last two weeks of the month.

Among the hot new games set to premiere this month, two stand out: Injustice 2, a sequel to the 2013 DC hero hit Injustice: Gods Among Us; and Prey, a re-imaging of the 2006 first-person shooter of the same name.

Check out below for more, along with this month's hottest books, albums, and television premieres:





Movies

Television

Games

Books



Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Anime Review: Boruto: Naruto Next Generations




Show Name: Boruto: Naruto Next Generations
Genre: Action/Fantasy
Premiered: April 5, 2017

After many years of spectacular highs and horrendous lows, the epic saga of shonen juggernaut Naruto had finally closed the last page, leaving a flurry of mixed emotions in its wake.  For many fans, it was the quintessential end of an era, like bidding farewell to a lifelong companion after a childhood full of joy and pleasure.  For others, though, it probably felt like the long-awaited end to a song that had gone on for entirely too long, poisoning any fondness under a mountain of low-quality fillers and some serious literary faux pas.  Still, whatever side of the fence you fall on, there's no denying that Naruto has left a mark most manga can only dream of replicating.  So when it was announced last spring that this sacrosanct series will be getting a spinoff/continuation focusing on Boruto, Naruto's precocious and talented son, the reactions were, as you'd expect, mixed.  While the Boruto movie, along with many of the Next Gen kids, are relatively well-received, and some fans argue that a continuation falls nicely in line with the series's overarching theme of bequeathing responsibilities to the next generation, others felt it was an unnecessary cash cow leech, sucking on a franchise whose veins dried out long before it finally bit the dust. The fact that Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto has a relatively minor hand in this next swing in the property also gives little to expect for this new saga.  But that's all abstract speculation; with the cat now out of the bag, how does Boruto: Naruto Next Generations stand up under scrutiny?

Synopsis
(For a summary of the original Naruto series, click here.)

Many years have passed since the Fourth Great Ninja War, and the ninja world is finally at peace.  Thanks to the efforts of Naruto and his companions, old severances have been mended, new bonds forged, and our hero, having achieved his dream of becoming Hokage, presides over a Konohagakure bursting with life and possibility.  Even so, there’s a whisper on the winds, a sign that not all is well and that the world may once again taste the bitterness and heartache of war and violence.  Fortunately, a new generation has arisen, striking out from their early days in the ninja academy in hopes of making a name for themselves like their now-legendary parents.  Chief among them is Boruto, the rambunctious progeny of Naruto and Hinata Hyuga, who is driven by an intense desire to both escape his fabled father’s shadow, and win his undivided approval.  With his friends by his side and a host of new challenges ahead, Boruto is determined to carve his own unique story into the marble slab of shinobi history.

The Good
Boruto reels you in with an effective use of the tried-and-true cold open - showing us a near future dystopia of destruction and decay, with Boruto clashing swords with an unknown adversary atop the ruins of his hometown.  Though an oft-used strategy in fiction, it’s necessary, even crucial, for this series, since it gives us a reason to stick around (i.e. to see how we got here) while also bestowing a sense of narrative direction lacking in its predecessor.  While Naruto’s thread of continuity was tied to the protagonist’s personal ambitions (which were often muddled by drama and by adversaries whose own private hells became a black hole in the plot) Boruto presents us with a simpler, more direct, and honestly more compelling motive: How did this happen?  What are the circumstances that led Boruto to becoming the tattooed, sword-wielding badass as he appears in the opening?  Besides this intriguing narrative scaffolding, the animation is smooth and fluid, matching the best its parent series had to offer, and if nothing else will ensure a gorgeous spectacle of high-flying ninja action.

The Bad
Unfortunately, despite the nice start, the pacing of this new anime is likely to be a slow and maddeningly repetitive one.  Boruto starts its tale way back in the beginning of his academy days - before both the movie, and the intriguing Naruto Gaiden manga.  This could mean one of two things: that the anime will skip those elements and spare viewers the pain of retreading old territory with new boots; or they’ll just plunge ahead in the style of Dragon Ball Super, subjecting us to the same old plot while dragging out the series.  This can be a real problem, especially if stretching the distance between the current, somewhat boring point A to the tantalizing point B in the cold open proves to be more than what most fans are willing to tolerate.  Another issue is our main lead and his goals - or rather, his current lack thereof.  While Naruto didn’t have the same end post to hold our attention, he was blessed with a solid personal motivation that made for a fruitful and self-perpetuating journey.  Boruto has yet to show anything akin to this, besides some self-centered desire to surpass his father while steering clear of the path he had trodden at all costs.  Beyond that, he's just not that interesting of a character in his own right.  The creators wisely give Boruto just enough distinction so that he avoids becoming a Xerox of his dad, but stripped of Naruto's justified desires and without a matching sympathetic root for his bratty actions, there isn't a whole lot to endear this kid to the audience.  With his privileged background, loving family, and other advantages his parents would have killed to have growing up, he comes off as spoiled and obnoxious, even with the obligatory "hidden heart of gold" stock character trait that makes him less interesting than if he was an outright jerk.  Obviously, this is bound to change as the story goes on - but the question remains whether he’ll exhaust our tolerance for him by that point.

The Ugly
Truth be told, this entire new stunt sits in a hazy fog of “what ifs.”  Boruto might become a strong and likeable character, if he can surmount his flaws before we all lose interest.  The story might turn out to be a gripping and compelling account of passing the torch to the next generation, if the kids rounding out the cast herd move past their generic phase and start developing personalities worth watching.  It grants the series a lot of potential, sure - but it could also come crashing down in one big, steaming pile.  Boruto is pretty much a collection of possibilities, with no guarantees one way or the other that Kishimoto’s legacy will be a roaring crescendo or a shrill, deadening dirge.

Tune In or Tune Out
For now, Tune Out.  As interesting as the cold open is, and despite the number of nostalgia veins it’ll undoubtedly open for many of its fans, Boruto has little to offer otherwise, except a slow start and a flash of mildly interesting vignettes hung on a series of pessimistic question marks.  I won’t go full cynic and claim that it's just another cash cow grab, but the last arc of Naruto was a dry pump to begin with, and even its most die hard fans are hard-pressed to justify this new turn in the franchise.  The patented Naruto meta-theme of bequeathing to the next generation might make it worth keeping an eye out for here and there, but you can bypass this entirely and not feel like you're missing some critical part of the Naruto legendarium.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

April Releases

April Releases



A new month, and that means new premieres and releases to dive into.  There's...really not much to write home about on the movie front, unless talking blueberries and Vin Diesel's latest tough guy car fu are your thing.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Good thing there's a parade of fresh shows, cool games, and awesome music and books to round out the box office's comparative sluggishness:




Movies

Television

Games

Books


See you at the movies!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Jack is back with an all new look and attitude



source:heroichollywood



Show: Samurai Jack, Season 5
Genre: Animation, action, drama
Network: Cartoon Network
Premiered: March 11, 2017

Way back in the early 2000s, Cartoon Network released an inconspicuous little animated gem by the name of Samurai Jack.  Spawned from the mind of animation icon Genndy Tartakovsky, this Kurosawa-esque tale of a wandering samurai lost in a dark future and seeking a way back home while doing battle with his eternal nemesis Aku, possessed a unique aesthetic and storytelling style that intrigued audiences even beyond its targeted fanbase.   But to its dedicated fans, it was so much more: a cartoon magnum opus that, alas, had succumbed to that dreaded television disease known as early cancellation; after four seasons of artistry and spellbinding narratives woven with skill and dexterity, the series came to an astoundingly unsatisfying conclusion featuring our hero Jack essentially being a babysitter.  No end to his quest, no resolution to his story, no nothing.  Fans were apparently left with yet another franchise that went belly up, and while Jack’s legacy continued in other media, even his creator was chomping to bring his tale back to the screen for a fitting finale.  

But thankfully, this woeful story has a happier ending than most, for after nearly a decade and a half of languishing on Tartakovsky’s bucket list, the series will once again see the light of day, premiering on Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] property with an updated look, a new attitude, and a commitment to bringing Jack's journey to a close.  So with expectations riding high, how does this new chapter in the Book of Jack pan out?

Synopsis
(You can read up on the premise of the original series here)

Fifty years have passed since the end of season four, and Jack, rendered ageless due to his time traveling, has shown the worst of it.  With his face framed in a scruffy beard and sporting long, unkempt locks, he looks every bit the rootless rounin as he transverses the Aku-infected landscape.  Plagued by both terrifying visions of failure and a subtle but growing cynicism, Jack holds ever more tenuously to his single hope of returning to his own time, which thanks to Aku, seems further and further out of reach with each passing day.  Meanwhile, his ancient nemesis has been busy with plans of his own, tying together a cult of devotees and laying out his latest plan to be rid of the samurai for good: a group of seven female assassins, raised from birth with only one purpose - kill Samurai Jack.  Now, our hero, bereft of both his sword and his purpose, must face this latest challenge, and in the process maybe recover some of the fire and righteousness that sparked his legend to begin with.


The Good
Right from the initial cold open, you get the sense that this is a very different kind of story from what we're used to.  While Samurai Jack never shied away from darker plots in the past, they had always worked by way of contrast to Jack's own pure and indomitable spirit.  But here, Jack is a changed man: jaded, world weary, and haunted, as likely to help the helpless as he is to turn his back on an endangered village since he simply can't be bothered at the moment.  This all works very well with the more mature setting, whose depictions of a heroic icon bent low by the baggage of his life draw favorable comparisons to both John Wick and Logan, and gives this last arc a degree of gravitas quite removed from the often quirky earlier seasons.  But simply mentioning that there's an actual story arc to speak of points out another fundamental change to the franchise - one that, in my opinion, can only be for the better.  As much as I enjoyed the original series, it wasn't exactly a narrative juggernaut.  This isn't a slight against Tartakovsky’s talent for kabuki style storycrafting, but Samurai Jack's episodic format and the varying quality that entails meant that, for some episodes at least, there was little to keep fans interested save for the lovely animation.  But now, the show’s set up a tense, multi episode arc that, if this first taste is any indication, will surely compel us to see through its conclusion.  But thankfully, Samurai Jack hasn't completely turned its back on the same qualities that propelled its success in the first place.  Tartakovsky’s “show, don't tell“ philosophy is still there, gliding over the lushly illustrated backdrops to tell his story in silence and muted glances.  And the presence of Scaramouch, a robotic Sammy Davis, Jr. expy of a bounty hunter who throws out witty musical dialogue as he tries his luck against Jack, reminds us that the show hasn't lost its sense of humor despite the mature image, giving fans of all tastes a reason to tune in.


The Bad
Not much to complain about, really, though I can't say I'm particularly fond of how much is thrown at us in the first episode.  Though the depiction of Jack’s malaise is thorough and heart-rending, too many flashbacks were tossed about, revealing key plot points I would have much preferred to see gradually unfolding over the course of several episodes.  Key points include the reveal that Jack lost his sword, or maybe to have stretched out the training of the Daughters of Aku over another episode.  This may be due to time constraints, as we’re still not sure how long this season will run, but I do hope that revelations of what drove Jack to the threshold of hopelessness will be expanded at a more leisurely pace over the upcoming episodes.

The Ugly
So far I’ve been pretty mum on the premiere’s B story - the birth and development of the Seven Daughters of Aku, the gaggle of laser-guided tyke bombs who promise to put our hero through a world of hurt.  I’m still weighing in on how their appearance will affect the series in the long run.  On the one hand, they're practically the heralds of this new long-running story arc approach, being no mere villain of the week, but a consistent and dangerous threat to a warrior who’s been almost invincible to most of his enemies.  Being raised in a cult that worships Aku as a god and castigates Jack as his evil usurper, they likely harbor viewpoints that may add a splash of gray to a traditionally black-and-white series, which when combined with Jack’s more cynical outlook, might make for some interesting interactions beyond the sharp clanging of sword on sword action.  But on the other hand, this could all be squandered if the arc resolves itself too quickly, or if Jack somehow “handles” the situation in his usual quick and efficient manner - leading the whole thing to just one big bust.  Other than that, the animation, while still the gorgeous wash of lineless artwork that’s come to define the series, has added CG to the palette - a necessary addition in my book, though we’ll have to see how it’s used and maintained as time goes by.

Tune In or Tune Out
Tune In, folks - it’s a no-brainer.  We’re talking about the resurrection of the biggest cult animated series from the early 2000s here - of course you should tune in.  Old fans will finally get a sense of closure for this modern-day chanbara saga, and even if you’re new to the dystopian world of Samurai Jack, this first episode, minus a few foibles, packs enough humor, action, and hard-boiled grit to beat back even the most vociferous cries of “It’s just a cartoon.”  It's time to get back to Jack.