Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: Kevin (Probably) Saves the World

Face of a real hero right here, folks.

Show: Kevin (Probably) Saves the World
Genre: Fantasy comedy-drama
Network: ABC
Premiered: October 3, 2017

Nightly news got you down?  Does the world feel a bit scarier and a whole lot colder than it did even just a few years ago?  Are you bored and just looking for an hour to kill?  Well, whatever your reasons, you might find what you’re looking for in ABC’s new comedy drama, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.  Created by Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters, the series follows the well-trod formula of quasi-mystical, inoffensive “spirituality” shows meant to drive home some tough-love lessons.  This kind of gimmick would have gone the way of the dodo and Touched by an Angel a long time ago were it not for the recent desire to believe in something beyond the seemingly intractable political shouting matches erupting both within and between nations that have polarized and alienated so many.  But can this old formula learn a new trick to keep up with today’s reality t.v. culture, short attention-spans, and cynical viewers?

Kevin Finn (played by Jason Ritter, son of the legendary television actor) is the very definition of “rock bottom.”  A failed investment banker, he emerged from a hollow life and seemingly broken relationship disoriented and directionless.  Worse yet, he’s cluelessly self-absorbed, unaware that his limited empathy drifts him further away from those around him and bring him closer and closer to the brink of despair.  After a botched suicide attempt, he heeds the warning signs and heads home to stay with his loving, widowed twin sister Amy (JoAnna Garcia) and her caustically  troubled teenage daughter Reese (Chloe East), all while trying to sort out the mess that his life has become.  Unfortunately, contrary to Kevin's seeming day-to-day praxis, there’s a whole world out there he’s not the center of that’s experiencing its own tribulations.  One night, Amy, a world-renowned engineer, is spirited away by the government to investigate a series of meteor strikes that have been afflicting the world in short series.  When one of said meteors strikes near their home, and inexplicably enthused Kevin drags Reese out to investigate the space rock.  What results is a violent shock, more heat from Reese, and an unexpected guest: a no nonsense angelic guide named Yvette (Kimberly H├ębert Gregory) who informs Kevin that he is one of the chosen of God with a mission to save the world.  Now our unlikely apostle must overcome his flaws to find the 36 other Chosen - and maybe, in the process, find some much needed healing for himself and his family.

The Good
I’ll say it straight out: I love Jason Ritter.  He bestows Kevin Finn with so much awkward charm - such sensitivity for the nuances of a man simultaneously depressed, somewhat self-absorbed but heroically striving to be a better person - that you really can’t tell where the line between the man and the actor diverge.  I rarely fall into superlatives like this, but Ritter truly does an outstanding job as Kevin, making us truly like and care for a man who’s supposed to be unsympathetic at the start; in fact, he may have done his job too well.  Besides Kevin, JoAnna Garcia sparkles as his sister Amy.  While most of the pilot gave them only limited interaction, it was still enough to notice Amy’s justifiable protectiveness, and by the second episode I was convinced that they really could have been twin siblings.  Of course, Amy’s strengths aren’t limited to support; she’s weighed down with unresolved issues of her own, and how Kevin will help her work through them can prove to be a pleasant B plot throughout the series.  Beyond Ritter’s stellar performance and the intriguing character interactions, the series’ narrative somehow blends the slice-of-life foibles of Kevin’s mission to be a better person and the wider mystery of why he was chosen by God and where his mission to find the Chosen will take him.

The Bad
But with all this praise, there are a few notable disruptions to the show’s generally enjoyable pace.  It’s sense of humor can use a little work - and no, I’m not talking about the witticisms and awkwardness Ritter pulls off so well.  I mean its tendency to devolve into snark or even Buster Keaton levels of slapstick when it would be best to just let the scene play out naturally.  Okay, I get it: you’re trying to push a series about faith and self-transformation to a world and generation swamped in the sarcasm, narcissism, and banal nihilism that are standard defense mechanisms in a seemingly meaningless and hostile global environment.  This ain't your momma’s "walk by faith" show, and the creators are well aware that playing those tropes straight is series suicide.  On the other hand, do I really need to see Kevin get zapped 20 feet in the air by a radioactive rock, or have someone butt in with a snide remark or sardonic glance every time the show takes a turn to the mystical or contemplative?  There’s diffusing the potential for cheese in a situation, and then there’s derailing the mood altogether and ruining one half of what you hope to accomplish.  The creators would be wise to hammer out that distinction more thoroughly, least what little sense of mystery and mystic uplift peeks out from under the covers will get swallowed up in the audience’s tempered sarcasm.  And speaking of religion, the show’s bizarre Crypto Judeo-Christianese faith is a hodgepodge of mutually inoffensive beliefs that stands out by how arid it is.  Nothing is said about the strictures or commands of this God - just a lot of harmony-with-the-universe nonsense, and I almost cringed when Yvette - usually a judgmental little tart on all matters Kevin every second of her screen time - casually brushes off any hangups he has regarding a sexual tryst with an old flame, regurgitating the usual “sexuality is a gift of God!” tripe of many modern series.  It's not that I want to see an old-timey religion represented; just that the limp, PC non-faith shtick can leave us floundering as to what, exactly, we’re supposed to expect from this God and his mission.

The Ugly
There is one particularly “ugly” side to this series, and that's how it treats its male lead.  Kevin gets kicked around and abused - verbally and physically - at least once every fifteen minutes or so.  And yeah, I get that slapstick is the main way to disarm the potential pretense factor inherent  to this genre, but it goes beyond that.  The show pushes hard Kevin’s supposed “selfishness” and general failure as a human being, but does little to support its case.  Maybe it's Jason Ritter’s disarming magnetism, maybe it's a matter of overstating the case; either way, Kevin just doesn't seem bad enough warrant most of the treatment he gets.  He's a little self-centered and vaguely materialistic, but compared to Reese’s callous teenage hypocrisy where it concerns him, or Yvette’s overbearingness in general, he looks, if not quite good in comparison, at least no worse, and is certainly more tolerable.  This makes the general insensitivity others show towards a man who had just attempted to take his own life especially painful.  The emphasis at times squares on how much his death would have impacted other people's lives - which while a valid point, is loaded with lots unfortunate implications.  This is a trait played very often with heroism fantasies - even comedic ones, like this - and especially when the lead is male: his personal struggles and emotional world are often downplayed or subverted in favor of his mission.  The only reason I don't count this all as an "F" against the series is the second episode, which alleviated these irritants somewhat.  Yvette is still obnoxiously judgmental and pushy, but...less so, and she seems to be warming up to Kevin.  Reese has mellowed out as well, and in either case is mercifully absent while Amy steps forward and provides some semblance of concern for Kevin and his mental state for his own sake, and not how it will affect others.  The plot's tightrope dance between slice-of-life, small-steps heroism and glimpses of a wider story arc are intriguing and interesting for now, but can run out of steam depending on how long it tkes to get this boat in motion.

Tune In or Tune Out
Tune in.  Jason Ritter alone is worth sticking around for, and Garcia is icing on the cake.  I’m honestly more interested in how they can aid in each other’s healing than in where the story is going, but Kevin's possible destiny is a nice carrot to waive all the same.  There is a lot up in the air at the moment, but this Toughed by an Angel with attitude may be just the thing to complete your night.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Review: The Mayor

Brand new voice - same old wrapping

Show: The Mayor
Genre: Political Sitcom
Network: ABC
Premiered: October 3, 2017

Who’s sick and tired of politics?  Odds are, you’re raising your hand from the other side of the screen right now.  The rising polarization and carnival sideshow that marks modern politics has left many of us weary and searching for an escape, or at least a view of the statecraft arena different from the ugly one we see every night on the nightly news.  Tense, gritty dramas like Scandal and House of Cards offer one flawed if compelling picture, as does Designated Survivor in a slightly less tarnished and more polished frame.  But what if you’re just looking to laugh at the absurdity of it all?  Sure, Parks and Recreation was a thing for a while, but its departure has left only the late night skeleton crew to fill that void.  “Whither flew the political sitcom?” you may ask.  Creator Jeremy Bronson may have found your answer with his brand-new series The Mayor, bringing the whole political enterprise down to grassroots by infusing it with something quite alien to its make-up: optimism and human warmth.  But after running such an unlikely platform, does this October dark horse deliver on its promises?

Young Courtney Rose (Brandon Micheal Hall) is an erudite but self-centered aspiring rapper based in Fort Grey, California, with star-studded dreams that unfortunately outsize his record sales at the moment.  So in a bid to boost his popularity, he does what every successful entrepreneur would in his situation: make a phony publicity campaign for the mayoral office and watch his name sparkle in the headlines.  If this all sounds uncomfortably familiar, well, it gets worse (or better?) from there.  When his vacuous but emotionally laden plea at his final public debate works magic on the crowd, he returns home and discovers to his horror that his publicity stunt proved a little too successful - in the worst possible way.  Now faced with the dire responsibility of running a city, Rose must rely on his friends, his supportive but no nonsense mother (played by the lovely Yvette Nicole Brown) and an acrimonious classmate-turned-mayoral manager (Lea Michele) to whip this potential disaster into a best-selling success.  And maybe he’ll learn a little responsibility along the way.

The Good
One thing right off the bat with this series is that it lives and breathes an infectious sense of fun and optimism.  In a swerve away from the dark and gritty political dramas listed above, and even the often mean-spirited satire of the admittedly brilliant Parks and Recreations, The Mayor brims with bright futures and the possibilities inherent in an elected office.  Hall is a central contributor to this, eschewing offensive and one-dimensional stereotypes to play Courtney Rose as an upbeat and well-intentioned young hustler who nonetheless has a lot of growing up to do.  The pacing doesn’t drag anywhere, and the direction of this series is made clear throughout the pilot.  Special note goes to Yvette Nicole Brown as Dina Rose, taking the “sassy black mom” stereotype and wringing it of its overbearing Medea-ish detritus, leaving behind a close yet humorous mother-son bond.  The presence of these two characters alone took what could have been - okay, is - a standard, cookie-cutter sitcom and turned it into something...not objectionable.

The Bad
That said, not all is sunshine and candies with this new show.  It is, in so many ways, woefully generic; the plot sprints ahead with all the self-awareness of a blind rooster, and the basic setup all but guarantees a story that can be called eight or nine episodes down the line.  In exchange for a mildly pleasant and affirming viewing experience, The Mayor seemingly sacrifices subtlety, dynamism, and a healthy sense of uncertainty.  It doesn’t help that the cast outside of our main lead and his mail carrier mom is rather lackluster.  Courtney’s obligatory two best friends, played by Bernard David Jones and Marcel Spears, are whimsical and charming, but add nothing else to the story.  Lea Michele made the weakest showing by far, giving Valentina Barella all the depth of a paper cut and delivering her lines with a stilted punctuality.  She highlights the one major thread uniting all of the show’s minor flaws: everything is too measured.  The lines for most of the actors are tossed out in a forced and sterile fashion, and the entire episode felt like they were just ticking off marks on the Great Board of Sitcom Conventions: from the new mayor’s bread and circus approach to community revitalization- which, of course, runs counter to his straight-laced but ultimately right assistant; to the plot-ruining slip of selfishness, complete with the “wisdom lecture” courtesy of his mother; to his mea culpa and, finally, redemptive act of kindness that proves once and for all where his heart truly lays.  Now none of those things are necessarily bad in and of themselves, and I’d hate to come off as an anti-feel-good cynic.  I just hope The Mayor shakes loose from the formula a bit as the series continues its course - otherwise, it can get very boring, very quickly.

The Ugly
There's very little to put here, honestly.  The pilot reveals a comedy lacking any major depth, flexibility, or - to its credit - pretense, so there isn't a whole lot that can either wiggle out from the narrative shadows, or crash and burn after takeoff.  I'm still weighing whether The Mayor’s by-the-book interpretation of the political sitcom is more tongue-in-cheek than I’m giving it credit for; it would be nice to see a series for once dip into some much-needed satire without painting the whole world in black with a smattering of gray - especially when the potential is so ripe.  But otherwise, it doesn’t seem to be any more or any less than what it presents to the world, which on the plus side, means it can potentially whip out some homespun, down-to-earth advice on how a politician can actually be of service to his or her constituency - something they already touch on in the pilot, and something the national power players both on and off the screen tend to forget at their peril.

Tune In or Tune Out?
Tune in.  And I say this with more feet-dragging than with any other show I’ve ever reviewed.  Despite the seemingly undue weight to the negatives I give above, there’s nothing really bad about this series as far as I can tell; it’s just a tad too safe and predictable for my tastes.  But that’s no reason for audiences to write it off, and considering the insanity that’s been going on in the world today, maybe “safe and predictable” is just what the doctor ordered.  So by all means, have a seat, and enjoy Courtney’s ride on the political bull.  Just don’t expect it to be too exciting.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

October Releases

October Releases

October's approach heralds the end of the year, and as usual, Hollywood scrambles to close it with a bang.  Probably the front "runner" this month is Blade Runner 2049, an old-school neo-noir sequel with some mighty big shoes to fill.  Coming out the same day is My Little Pony's feature film debut, which will no doubt see its theaters filled to the brim with grown men pretending to bring their daughters or little sisters to see itHappy Death Day, starring rising actress Jessica Rothe, is best described as Scream meets Groundhog Day - a premise that just might be more interesting than it sound.

 On t.v., ABC's Kevin (Probably) Saves the World is a Jason Ritter showcase, centered on a sad and somewhat self-absorbed failed banker who's chosen by God to - you guessed it - save the world.  We'll see if the series lives up to the nefarious tightrope of optimistic life affirmation mildly cynical self-awareness that's always so difficult to pull off.  Channel-mate The Mayor examines the saga of a rapper who ran for mayor as a publicity stunt actually gets elected in a manner that has nothing to do with recent American politics over the past year or anything.  Seriously, you reading into it too much.

 There is plenty of other great stuff coming out this month across the entertainment industry, so have a look down below at the latest in games, books, and music.





See you at the movies! 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

September Releases

September Releases

August's box office drought has finally given way to the meandering brook of September, and there's a lot to talk about here.  The biggest news undoubtedly is the terrifying new adaptation of Stephen King's coulrophobic horror IT.  The tale of a group of child outcasts banding together to confront the frightful specter of Pennywise the Clown is one of King's crowing achievements, and this new twist on the old tale is sure to both rile up old fears and raise new fans in its wake.  Other premieres this month include Reese Witherspoon's romantic comedy Sweet Home Alabama in L.A. Home Again; mother!, a psychological thriller from the same mind behind Black Swan; and the action comedy sequel Kingsman: the Golden Circle.  

On the television front, Fox is bringing space back with a twist, eschewing the pretense of high drama a la Star Trek and going for a comedy-drama bent in Seth MacFarlane's The Orville. Fans of The Big Bang Theory shouldn't miss Young Sheldon, a spinoff/prequel starring everyone's favorite socially inept genius as he bumbles through high school at the tender age of 9.  And speaking of The Big Bang Theory, it's coming back this month, along with a host of other favorites, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Lethal Weapon, and Grey's Anatomy

For the dedicated gamer, online FPS Destiny 2 and the latest addition to Capcom's legacy crossover fighting series Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite are probably the hottest items on the September ticket.   Meanwhile, your music buff will probably cheer (or groan) as Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato engage in a little battle of Disney child stars-turn pop princesses through their respective albums dropping on the same day, while Shania Twain breaks her 15-year silence to release Now.  And last but not least, there's plenty of thoughtful sci fi and tales both real and unreal to keep the bookworm in your life satisfied.





See you at the movies!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Book Review: BiblioTech:Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google

Book: Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More than Ever in the Age of Google
Author:John Palfrey
Publisher information: New York, NY: Basic Books, c2015

“May you live in interesting times,” that infernal Chinese cliche, has perhaps never been truer than for the bearers of that most beleaguered title, “librarian.”  Despite study after study indicating the power, importance and necessity of the institution and its custodians, enamorment with Google and other big firms of the Internet and their false promises of unrestricted quality information at everyone’s fingertips have lulled us into the delusion that libraries have become obsolete.  A darkly symbiotic falsehood infects many public officials squeezed by tight budgets in the wake of the colossal economic meltdown, and who so often place libraries on the chopping block in their quest to cut “superfluous” agencies.   In the wake of this assault on multiple fronts, champions of the library arise to counter the prevailing common wisdom, advocating for the library’s value and irreplaceable role in the so-called information economy.  BiblioTech is just such a book, a slim and relatively recent text penned by John Palfrey, law professor and co-founder of the Digital Public Library of America.  As apparent from the title, Palfrey subscribes to the digitization school of library future forecasting, albeit with a more sensible and incremental approach than most: he doesn’t herald the imminent death of the book, and his central argument is that as the world gradually transitions from the analog to the digital, libraries must lead the way through the turbulence, forming collaborations with each other to ensure that open access to information will be available to all in the future.

Palfrey takes a “tough love” approach to how he assesses the current state of libraries: while lauding the role they have played and will continue to play in the lives of millions, he chides librarians for not doing enough to form collaborations and transition from bound books to open access digital content.  This well-trodden path may be refreshing or irritating depending on your viewpoint, but Palfrey nails some valid points as he treks along.  He's right in declaring that information has grown too voluminous for any one library to house all of it, and that a joint digital effort will be needed to preserve precious historical documents in the future.  This preservation aspect of the library's modus operandi - so often lost in the rush to “redefine” its mission - is critical to the future, Palfrey argues, especially since digital documents are so transient compared to print.  His chapter on the legal hurdles facing libraries in the acquisition of digital content and navigating copyright law is, as expected, thorough, and Palfrey's proposed solutions are clear-sighted and obtainable.

Unfortunately, Palfrey’s “tough love” often veers toward the unrealistic and the naive; many of his proposals are simply too far out of reach for most public agencies, and his inconsequential chapter on “hacking” library spaces comes off as faddish and meaningless, despite promises to the contrary.  Despite his good ideas and acknowledged respect for the library and its mission, he falls for the standard technologist trap of viewing the library as a platform of limitless possibility, despite the very real limits of funding, staffing, and hours in the day.  He gives numerous and heartfelt beseechments throughout the book for public support of the library, but falls short of real, practical advice on how to accomplish this.  For a more grounded approach to library adaptation in the “information age,” see Michael Gorman’s cri de coeur Our Enduring Values Revisited: Librarianship in an Ever-Changing World, released as a second edition the same year, which provides a welcomed antidote to the blind rush to make libraries everything to everyone by revisiting the core values of this peculiar calling.  By skimping on this central understanding, Palfrey’s work, while more steeped in the murky heart of modern librarianship than most digitization truckers, doesn’t quite check in with the profession’s more nuanced transformation efforts.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

August Releases

August Releases

Well, August holds fast to its reputation as the most mind-numbingly dry movie month of the year; there's little to speak of, save for the long-awaited film adaptation of Stephen King's fantasy magnum opus.  Besides that, Al Gore steps back in the ring to go another round against global warming in an expansion to his late July limited release, and...well, that's about it, really.

Television (and Netflix) is cranking out a new wave of pre-fall seeries, including Marlon and Marvel's the Defenders.  Check out these and other hot new releases down below. 





See you at the movies 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a swinging good film with a huge dose of heart

"Hey, everyone."

Movie: Spider-Man:Homecoming
Director: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau

This latest incarnation of the Spider-Man mythos is a slick, streamlined, and refreshingly down-to-earth offering of Marvel’s heroic mascot, who swings back into focus on the shoulders of a strong, convincing lead, a relatable villain, a generally likeable cast, and a plot that keeps you engaged even if it leans a bit too heavily on the comedy at some points.

In depth:
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has risen to something rather singular in the world of multi cinematic franchises over the past decade.  Despite a few stumbles here and there, Marvel Studios has generally kept the quality on the up and up, even as they crank out the films like cars on an assembly line.  With Spider-Man: Homecoming, my expectations were already high, as I’ve not only been spoiled to quality from this series, but Tom Holland’s brief but memorable appearance in Captain America: Civil War filled me with high hopes.  I sung Holland’s praises in my review of the superhero tussle, and I figured that the new movie only had more teen witticisms and awkward bonding moments to offer.  And in a very, very rare display of magnanimity by the movie gods, my faith was vindicated, for Homecoming proves itself a high-flying, funny, and heartfelt addition to the canon, giving a unique twist on the Spider-Man legacy and providing the perfect vehicle to catapult Holland up the MCU pantheon.

The story starts a little while after the Battle of New York featured in the first Avengers movie, where scrappy salvage chief Adrian Tomes (Keaton) finds himself muscled out of a contract for some choice alien goodies by Tony Stark’s Department of Damage Control.  Feeling the financial squeeze and burned by this latest insult by the big shots, Tomes and his crew pilfer a few Chitauri trinkets and use them to start a new, more clandestine line of business.  Flash forward a few years, and we find our favorite web head giving a hilarious video diary of the events leading up to his recruitment during the Civil War Arc.  High on the adrenaline rush born of trading blows with some of the best heroes on the planet, young Peter Parker (Holland) has seemingly nudged his way under the tutelage of Avengers heavyweight Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and waits eagerly by his phone, ready to spring at a moment’s notice should he be needed once again.  But as the months pass with no contact, our hero-to-be wilts in the dark, trudging through his days at Midtown School of Science and Technology (an interesting twist on Peter’s alma mater) dreaming of the global-scale heroism he believes is his destiny while taking care of routine crime in his neighborhood.  But when a series of Tomes’s super high-tech weapon deals leaves a trail of devastation and near-shattered lives, Peter decides that he’s had enough of sitting on the sidelines.  With the help of his nerdy friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his upgraded suit, he strikes out, hoping to slay this new criminal power shaking up his turf - and maybe in the process, work his way into Tony's good graces.

At its best, The MCU has the hallmark of consistent high quality, and Homecoming is no different.  The writing, acting, pacing, and other necessities of cinema storytelling are top notch here, and hits every note a decent reboot should.  Holland continues his triumphantly awkward march to cinema legend, balancing Peter’s wit and intellectual acumen with all the uncertainty and confusion that comes with being a teenager.  He's only a movie and a half into this franchise, but he's already proven to have a leg -up on his predecessors; Tobey Maguire relied too much on an unnatural adult charm that didn’t feel convincing most of the time, while Andrew Garfield, though a more worthy heir to the web shooters, was crippled by a convoluted plot line that morphed him into an unstable head case.   Holland breathes life into Peter Parker, and plays so naturally off of everyone he encounters in the story that it made the pacing and everything else a breeze.

Of course, Holland wasn’t alone in bringing this ship to shore, as Watts and company assembled a crack cast to support our lead.  While I was initially wary of the changes made to Peter’s school and social circle (it stunk a bit of that tired old cynical ploy of diversity for the sake of it) it turned out for the best, permitting Peter to thrive in his little niche in the high school pecking order without, as in previous incarnations, giving him reason to go on a shooting spree out of sheer frustration.  I wasn’t fond of Ned at first, who seemed disproportionately present and unpleasant as Peter’s “best friend” who causes more trouble than he’s worth.  But as the movie moved forward, he settled into a mercifully saner background role, simultaneously Peter’s sidekick and bridge to a perspective outside of his own ambition.  In fact, most of the film’s minor tweaks to denizens of the Spider-Man mythology turned out for the better.  The refreshing absence of Mary Jane Watson not only frees Peter from getting strangled by a romantic subplot, leaving him free to pine harmlessly for the ineffectual Liz (Laura Harrier), but it also introduces a new “MJ” - the strange, so-called apathetic Michelle Jones, played by the singer and dancer Zendaya.  Sardonic and observant, this newbie in the Spider-Man universe is more wound-down Allison Reynolds than a sultry girl-next-door, and Zendaya’s subtle expressions and mood shifts made her far more welcomed than the typical canon foreigner.  While the MCU received a bit of backlash for casting Marisa Tomei as a younger, sexier Aunt May, she plays naturally off Holland, their relationship more like siblings than the oddly underdeveloped mother-son (or grandmother-grandson) dynamic of yesteryear.  These characters, interesting enough on their own without overshadowing either our lead or the plot, are full of verdant possibilities awaiting full bloom in the awaited sequel. 

But the film really bears its fangs through the down-to-earth treatment it gives the superhero enterprise, the success of which lays squarely with Holland and how he battles with both his mentor and his adversary.  Robert Downey, Jr., of course, has mastered the Art of the Stark, and needs no further commentary on his role by this point; he’s so melded to the character that it's impossible to envision anyone else in that role.  What’s unique here is that he’s not pitching battle against aliens, superhuman freaks, or cybernetic antagonists, but rather, along with his assistant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) he faces the more arduous task of forming a mentor relationship at turns  both hilarious (Happy’s aggressive neglect, and the continual reinforcement that Tony sees the web-slinger as a wee spiderling) and serious.  Peter is driven by his admiration of Iron Man and everything he represents, while the flawed, cranky elder hero wants him to aim lower and do better.  At play throughout the film is this tension between Peter’s high-flying aspirations, and everyone’s attempts to keep him grounded so he can learn how to walk.  These concerns come to a head in his bouts against Alan Tomes, a.k.a. The Vulture.  Keaton’s villain is not an insane psychopath, nor is he a mutant, alien, or global threat whatsoever.  He’s simply a high-tech thief with a blue-collar ethic, a glorified arms dealer leading a team as muddled and bumbling as they are scarily competent when they need to be - and is more worried about providing for his family than taking over the world.  His pedestrian motives and origins ooze from every inch of his mundane surface, from his so-called “lair” (little more than a mechanic’s garage, even with the alien technology) to the Vulture suit itself, which melds a tacky but practical pilot’s jacket with a set of wings that, sci-fi luster aside, looks like something built in a backyard shop.  His ambitions never move beyond this scope, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Spider-Man’s most dramatic rescue in the entire movie (that wasn’t a mop-up of something he had caused) is of Happy Hogan’s career.  Keaton gives the rogue a very likeable demeanor even at his worst, and the serious talk he had with Peter at one point during their final showdown pretty much cemented their working-class positions on the hero-villain pecking order: through their concerns and perspectives, they probably have more in common with each other than either has with the likes of Tony Stark.  

With all this praise thrown at it, there’s certainly some negative ballast to balance everything off, right?  Well, not really.  Sometimes the humor can be a bit invasive; while the MCU is known to perfectly blend bathos and gravitas in their films, this time the pendulum shifted a bit too far in one direction, delivering laughs when I’d prefer not to hear them.  But this is just the gripe of a pedant, for the mood of the movie hardly missed a beat, and the actors involved were all talented enough to know when to drop the smiles and push their dramatic chops.

The rest of the film - the stellar effects, the smart script - is mere dressing on an already elegantly crafted cake.  The reprieve from apocalyptic battles or the clashing of superhuman titans is most welcomed, and the solid story of a young hero’s growth and journey as he learns to act locally while keeping his eyes on the big picture proceeds spectacularly from start to finish.  As the MCU hits the hump in its 3rd phase, Marvel’s most iconic hero couldn’t have asked for a better showing.

Grade:  A

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.






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 literally 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.