Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

I love Harry Potter as much as the next person, but it’s taken me a while to go see the latest movie set in the wizarding world. This is because I don’t believe in unnecessary prequels (especially not when they get turned into their own multi-film series–I’m still mad at Peter Jackson for the Hobbit movies), and everything in me recoils at the idea of making a movie as a follow-up to a series of books. The Harry Potter story was completed satisfactorily almost 10 years ago, the film series finished up equally well in 2011, and Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them just seemed like a shameless money-grab to me.

But of course I had to see it anyway.

Image result for fantastic beasts and where to find them

WARNING: Neither the following review nor the movie will make any sense unless you’ve read all the Harry Potter books and seen all previous movies, preferably multiple times.

Fantastic Beasts takes place across the pond from its predecessors, during the rise of Gellert Grindelwald in the 1920s. Newt Scamander, a sort of wizarding zoologist, arrives in New York City with a suitcase full of magical creatures (the case is bigger on the inside). Almost as soon as he sets foot in America, several of the creatures get loose, which is particularly bad during a time when evil magic is on the rise and many Americans are starting to get suspicious of magical activity. While Newt begins an impromptu scavenger hunt through New York for the missing creatures, he gets mixed up with an ex-Auror and her mind-reading sister, a hapless muggle, and the ridiculously strict Magical Congress of the United States of America. Meanwhile, another magical threat is building in New York that makes even the most dangerous of Newt’s pets look tame.

I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by many things in this movie. First off, it has two very important things that the Harry Potter books lacked: a Hufflepuff who isn’t a total loser (Newt himself), and a heroic muggle (Newt’s friend Jacob Kowalski–who is actually called a “No-Maj,” which, if I’m being honest, is exactly the kind of stupid term I’d expect American wizards to come up with.) The lack of good muggles, in particular, has always been one of my biggest pet peeves about the Harry Potter universe, so Kowalski’s presence is greatly appreciated.

Good news, kids: You don’t need magic powers to be useful!

Fantastic Beasts may have been made for greedy purposes, but it’s clear that good ol’ JK still put quite a bit of thought into writing the script. It’s fun to get a detailed, but not overly-exposited, look at what the wizarding world is like in another country, and what sorts of things wizards get up to after they’re done with school. The beasts are indeed fantastic, especially the cute Niffler and the majestic Thunderbird. And Eddie Redmayne is as delightful as ever in his role as a socially awkward animal lover who’s a lot more competent than he seems.

Tone-wise, this movie resembles the later Harry Potter instalments a lot more than the early ones–which makes sense, since it has the same director. There are plenty of fun scenes with the beasts causing mischievous mayhem, but it earns its PG-13 rating with themes of child abuse and some fairly gruesome on-screen deaths. More annoyingly, it continues the later Harry Potter movies’ habit of having wizards cast wandless spells left and right, and fight duels that consist of two wands pointing energy at each other. Neither of these things ever happens in the books except under special circumstances, and neither has ever made much sense to me. Wands also seem to behave oddly like guns in several scenes–but then, this is America.

Even our fake magical government sucks.

I have a couple of complaints about this movie. One is that it’s too long. Overall, I think JK did a pretty good job balancing action and exposition in this introduction to another side of her universe, but there are still several rather slow scenes–and an entire subplot involving a newspaper editor and his family–that could have been cut without damaging the story at all. The ending, in particular, seemed to drag on.

The other problem is that THEY’RE MAKING FOUR MORE OF THESE. That’s more than half the number of actual Harry Potter movies, and if all of them make money–which they will–I have no reason to believe Warner Brothers will stop there. One spin-off movie I could understand, but there is just not enough plot in this story, or its scant source material, to justify that kind of bloated franchise. When will we let Harry rest?

The one good thing about getting a whole prequel series is that we might eventually see the famous duel between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. And my excitement over that has now been diminished by the fact that Johnny Depp, of all people, is playing Grindelwald. I like Depp’s acting for certain, very specific roles (mainly bonkers ones), but I just can’t imagine taking him seriously as Wizard Hitler. And his brief cameo in this movie did not reassure me.

Sorry, but this guy was a much better villain.

But in the end, there’s a certain amount of storytelling magic that the Harry Potter universe just can’t seem to shake, however hard it tries. This movie has some genuinely heartwarming moments, some surprises, and plenty of fun in between. It avoids many of the common pitfalls of an unnecessary spin-off (like copying the plot of its predecessor), and actually manages to feel like a pretty original movie, even though it takes place in a familiar universe. Much like the Harry Potter books, it has several characters I instantly fell in love with (especially Newt, because Eddie Redmayne), and as much as I hate the idea of four more sequels, I won’t mind seeing what happens to some of these chaps later on.

Did this movie need to be made? No. But now that it’s here, we might as well enjoy it for the quite decent story it is, and remember that the original Harry Potter books will always be around for us purists.

And while we’re at it, let’s enjoy Eddie’s face, for it brings happiness and joy.

Grade: B+



I can’t decide how sad I should be that Disney owns Lin-Manuel Miranda now. On the one hand, I think it’s going to be a really bad thing for his creative freedom (not that we’re likely to hear him complaining), but on the other hand, it’s obviously a really good thing for Disney.

Image result for moana

Moana is the story of…Moana, the daughter of a village chief on the South Pacific island of Motu Nui. Despite being surrounded by ocean, her people refuse to sail very far out on it, for fear of monsters and storms. But our rebellious teen heroine loves the ocean, and it turns out the feeling is mutual. Meanwhile, a curse is destroying all the islands in the Pacific because a demigod named Maui has stolen, and subsequently lost, the heart of life-giving goddess Te Fiti. When the curse reaches Motu Nui, Moana sets off on a voyage to save her people by finding Maui and returning the heart.

This movie doesn’t seem to be getting Frozen levels of hype yet (thank the Lord), but just in case it gets there in the coming months, let me reassure you: nothing about Moana is going to revolutionise Disney forever. True, it taps into a culture and mythology that Disney hasn’t really explored before, which is cool. But it’s still about a princess (with the same face shape the animators have been using since Tangled, no less) who rebels against her overbearing dad and her society’s expectations, has a goofy animal sidekick, goes on a journey, finds out she’s The Chosen One, joins up with a grumpy magical creature, and gets encouraged by the ghost of a dead ancestor. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

It’s a good thing she’s not white, because I was running out of ways to tell Disney princesses apart.

The only thing Moana is missing, in terms of Disney princess cliches, is a prince. I guess this movie is slightly revolutionary in that, not only does Moana not have a love interest, but the topic of romance and/or marriage never comes up once in the entire story. Which is great, because there’s no room for it, and it’s about time we got a fantasy adventure that wasn’t bogged down by a romantic subplot. Moana’s got oceans to sail and islands to save! Romance can wait!

I will freely admit that the main reason I went to see this film on opening weekend was that I’m obsessed with Hamilton. But by and large, I enjoyed it. The animation is lovely, the characters are engaging, and it goes without saying that the music is awesome. (Except for the hideous pop cover of the main character’s signature song during the credits.) My favourite song is “We Know the Way,” the one where you can actually hear the Lin-Man’s beautiful, beautiful voice.

He’s the only Disney prince I need.

But I digress.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Disney formula. It works spectacularly just as often as it doesn’t, and it’s produced many a classic in the past, which is why Disney owns the world now. Moana is a perfectly good princess movie, and, while it may not reach the heights of some of the greatest classics, it’s a huge improvement on Frozen.

But Moana is also an excellent example of some of the things I dislike most about Disney. For one thing, I can’t understand their current trend of injecting self-conscious, 2010s-style dialogue into supposedly timeless fairy tales. I am simply not amused by forced Twitter references and fourth-wall-breaking discussions on whether or not Moana fits into the Disney princess canon. I’d rather just laugh at the suicidal chicken, thank you very much. (I’ll admit, though, the sneaky Godzilla cameo made me smile.)

More importantly, though, this movie’s underlying message is the safest, most time-worn Disney message in history: Be yourself and follow your heart. I’ve always found that movie advice to be puzzling, because back when I was a part of Disney’s target demographic, my heart was mainly telling me to read books all day, throw rocks at my brother, and tell my little cousins that Santa Claus wasn’t real. And only one of those was a good thing. It’s all very well for Moana to follow her heart, since it only tells her to go sailing and save her island, but it’s not the best advice for most real people, especially children. Then again, when has Disney ever cared about reality?

Never. That’s when.

Other thoughts about Moana: 1. I had no idea The Rock had any talents other than body building, but he actually did a pretty fantastic job as Maui. 2. One minor villain’s song seemed weirdly out of place in this movie, but I still kinda liked it. 3. The coconut pirates were adorable and I want to hang one from my windshield.

All in all, a good Disney flick. Disney may never make something as great as Kubo, but they’ve done much worse than Moana.

“I forgive you for stealing Lin.” “You’re welcome.”

Grade: B+


It’s a great time to be a sci-fi fan. It seems to be the only genre that still produces smart, creative movies on a semi-regular basis–and they just keep on getting better. This year’s model is Arrival.

Image result for arrival movie

It starts by introducing us to Louise, the linguistics professor who will be the movie’s protagonist. But before we get to know her language skills, she’s shown as a mother, welcoming her brand new daughter to the world. In about five minutes, we see the daughter play in the backyard with her mom, struggle with school, grow into a rebellious teenager, get diagnosed with a rare disease, and die in a hospital bed, leaving Louise alone and grieving. This will all become incredibly important later.

But the story proper kicks off when 12 strange extraterrestrial objects land in 12 different countries around planet Earth. The world’s scientists, military leaders, and politicians are naturally very eager to find out why the aliens inside have come (and whether they’ve got any death rays), but there’s a problem: the alien creatures, dubbed “heptapods” because of their seven octopus-like limbs, don’t speak anything resembling any of our languages. As fear of the unearthly visitors spreads, Louise is recruited, along with physicist Ian, to figure out how to communicate with the heptapods who’ve landed in America before the government assumes the worst and starts shooting. But she soon finds that learning the alien language comes with…unexpected side effects.

“What’s that? I feel like we’re talking in circles here.”

I feel like the issue of language doesn’t come up often enough in alien movies. Most of the time, humans are too busy either blasting the aliens, smooching them or getting melted by them to really struggle with the quite realistic problems of deciphering a non-terrestrial language. If aliens ever did land on Earth, I expect we’d have to spend a few months learning how to say “hello” before we could decide whether or not to be friends. Always assuming neither the aliens nor humans subscribed to the “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality. Well, if you’ve always wanted a movie that meets the communication problem head-on, in a scientific manner, it has arrived. (Heh.) The movie also explores the various ways humans would respond to a first contact—from curiosity to outright worship to panic and fear. And of course there are parallels to the current rise in xenophobia in certain countries, complete with the obligatory jab at Fox News.

But despite its relevance to current events, this is, at bottom, entirely Louise’s story. I’ve always thought of Amy Adams as a good actress who gets stuck with a lot of bad roles, but this is one that really allows her to shine (Jeremy Renner is also in his element as the smart, sarcastic Ian). Her excitement and awe as a scientist confronted with the ultimate challenge is both believable and contagious. But as she begins to understand the two heptapods she’s talking to (dubbed “Abbott and Costello” due to their real names being unpronounceable) and their purpose in coming to Earth, her task becomes a lot more personal than she expected, resulting in a surprisingly emotional climax.

“Man, these aliens are so much more talkative and interesting than the last one I met.”

There’s a pretty huge twist near the end of this movie, and like most self-respecting sci-fi twists, it’s to do with time. I won’t say any more, except that it’s pulled off quite well and adds a whole new dimension to the story. And it left me with a lot to think about, including the numerous plot-related questions it left unresolved.

Arrival doesn’t have as much action or CGI as some of the bigger sci-fi blockbusters, but it’s still quite visually impressive. The scene where Louise and Ian first enter the alien ship and discover that gravity works a little differently inside is pretty jaw-dropping. The ship’s weird appearance and the unearthly noises its passengers make, combined with the eerie minimalist soundtrack, really drive home just how alien these visitors are. Which just makes it even more effective when the characters—and the audience—finally start to understand them. A bit.

But again, the visuals aren’t the star of this show. It’s a quiet, introspective, and ultimately quite idealistic movie with a message: that humans can accomplish great things by putting aside our differences and working together. And that it’s worthwhile to do so even when it involves pain. Oh, and also that you can totally breathe an alien atmosphere without any long-term health issues.

Maybe don’t take that last one to heart.

I have some quibbles with Arrival, as you can see, but overall I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys smart sci-fi. It’s a slow burn that pays off nicely in the end.

Grade: A

Monthly Movie Rant: The end is nigh

I am an American, due to circumstances beyond my control. So, for reasons that will probably be clear to anyone who’s glanced at the news recently, I’ve had a rather trying week. Anyway, since I didn’t post a Monthly Movie Rant for October, and since the real world appears to be headed towards an apocalypse of one kind or another, I thought this might be a good time to take a look at apocalypses in film.

Image result for apocalypse movies
Perhaps the Mayans were just a few years off, after all…

The end of the world has been a popular subject in movies–and all media, really–for a long time. It works its way into all sorts of genres: zombie movies, disaster movies, religious horror movies, post-apocalyptic punk car racing movies…there have even been romantic comedies set during or after the apocalypse. Not all of them are good, but they usually make decent money. Which is really friggin’ weird, if you think about it. Why are we, as a species, so entertained by imagining our own extinction?

Essays, dissertations–nay, full textbooks–have been written in an attempt to answer that question. And I’m not going to say that any one answer is more valid than another. But I know why I, personally, like end-of-the-world movies.

First, it’s because they’re so darn pretty. This only applies to good post-apocalyptic movies, of course. Some of them look really boring and washed-out. But that’s just poor cinematography. Picturing a world without humans–a world after humans–gives the judicious filmmaker a ton of great aesthetic options that a normal movie doesn’t have. There’s something starkly beautiful about an empty, overgrown city, or a barren desert, that you don’t get in your typical present-day movie. It’s the same attraction that drives people to travel hundreds of miles to look at ruins.

Then there are the outfits. Whether out of tradition or necessity, post-apocalyptic characters always seem to wear the coolest fashions. Which makes them both fun to watch and fun to cosplay.

Image result for mad max fury road charlize theron costume
So shiny. So chrome.

But there’s a deeper reason, too. As crazy as it sounds, I think a lot of end-of-the-world scenarios are wish-fulfilment fantasies. Bear with me.

Real life in the modern world is very complicated. We’ve got societal pressures coming at us from all sides. We’ve got to make money, pay bills, get educated, look good, get the right number of followers on social media, build a family, take care of the family, travel, vote, and on and on. It can get overwhelming. But if you take away the infrastructure of society and all its little “luxuries,” like the Internet and money, life becomes very simple. Most protagonists in apocalypse movies have only one real goal: survival. It’s a simple goal–easy to wrap one’s head around. And for those of us who have never actually had to fight for survival in the real world, the simplicity of it can sound weirdly attractive. Especially if it involves katanas.

Image result for michonne

But the wishful thinking goes beyond that. In the present, there are a lot more teeming, inhabited cities on Earth than overgrown, abandoned ones. And every single person in those teeming cities wants to believe they’re somehow special and unique. But in a world full of people, where everyone has a platform to voice their thoughts and opinions (thanks to the Internet), how can one person stand out in the crowd? (They can make cat videos, of course. But even those start to all look the same after a while.) In most post-apocalyptic movies, there are at most a couple million people scattered all over the globe, instead of the billions that pack the surface today. Our hero usually trudges through miles of abandoned farmland and cities before finding a settlement of a few dozen survivors. And when your society consists of a few dozen survivors, everyone is special. Everyone’s important. And, for me, that’s where the wish fulfilment really kicks in.

Take, for example, Will Smith in I Am Legend. His backstory is that he’s a scientist, one of many who were working on a cure for cancer before it went horribly wrong. By the time the movie starts, he’s the last man on Earth (or in New York City, at any rate), and now he’s working on a cure for crazed vampirism. Which makes him…wait for it…legendary. Because he’s the only hope for the human race, by default. However lonely and depressing his life was, who didn’t want to be Robert Neville while watching that movie? (Yes, I know, everyone wants to be Will Smith no matter what. But the point still stands.)

Image result for i am legend
I mean, he owns New York City, sans traffic. What more do you want?


When I imagine an end-of-the-world scenario, I am, of course, imagining one where I survive the apocalypse. And the idea of being able to start over, create a new identity in a world where nothing matters–not the circumstances of my birth, not my online following, not my education or job skills–except my ability to survive, is rather appealing.

Of course, in any remotely realistic apocalypse, I would die quickly. I have more flab than muscle, and I don’t know how to build a fire without a lighter. But that’s why we have movies, isn’t it? To escape from reality. And, occasionally, to remind us exactly why we find reality so escape-worthy.

Image result for the matrix
“Why didn’t I take the blue pill?”

Anywho, that’s how my diseased brain responds to end-of-the-world movies. Perhaps I’m alone. But I doubt it. Because in real, present life, I’m not special, and I’m certainly not the last blogger on Earth (thank Heaven).

So what are your thoughts? Why do you like apocalypse movies? (I’m assuming you do.) And what are some of your favourites?

Doctor Strange

Apologies for disappearing for the last few weeks. My life is a bit chaotic right now. But not as chaotic as this Marvel movie I’m about to review!

Image result for doctor strange

Stephen Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon with a pile of money,  a library of awards, and an ego the size of Texas. All that starts to change after he gets into a horrific car accident (texting while driving is BAD, kids!) that mangles his hands so badly he can’t even shave, let alone perform surgery. Desperate to try anything that could give him his old life back, he goes to Nepal to visit a mystical organisation called the Kamar-Taj, whose adherents are rumoured to have amazing healing abilities. Strange quickly finds out they do a heck of a lot more than heal injuries. Under the guidance of their leader, The Ancient One, he learns how to use magic to enter other dimensions, conjure powerful weapons, and do various other cool things, all of which he’ll soon need to use. Turns out the Kamar-Taj is at war with a rogue sorcerer who wants to unleash a malicious cosmic entity on the world, and Doctor Strange is getting swept into the conflict whether he likes it or not.

On the surface, this is way weirder than your average superhero movie, even considering some of the lesser-known heroes Marvel has brought to the screen recently. It’s got cities that fold themselves into kaleidoscopes, a dimension made entirely of hands, a sentient floating cape, and Benedict Cumberbatch trying to sound American. But despite the trippy visuals and out-of-the-box concept, it’s still a Marvel movie, which means there are certain rules it must follow. It’s got to have product placement (because even sorcerers need their iPads!), it’s got to have a Stan Lee cameo (no matter how jarring and out-of-place it feels), and it’s got to have characters who constantly make funny little quips at each other, even in serious life-or-death situations. And, sadly, it’s gotta have a bland, generic villain whose motives don’t make much sense.

Image result for doctor strange kaecilius
He also has a serious dry skin problem.

Then there are the more meta problems with this movie–particularly the fact that, even though about half of it takes place in Asia, there’s only one Asian character with any importance to the plot. And it’s not The Ancient One. Although I imagine it’s very hard to adapt a comic book from racist times in a way that doesn’t offend anyone, the people complaining about whitewashing in this movie do have something of a point.

But darn it, none of that is enough to keep me from loving Doctor Strange. It’s just too much fun. Did I mention there’s a scene where a city folds itself into a kaleidoscope? Well, there are also people fighting in that kaleidoscope and weaponising the shifting landscape against each other. It’s like Inception multiplied by 11. I usually avoid 3D when going to the movies, but I made an exception for this one, and did not regret it.

Image result for doctor strange mirror dimension
Who needs drugs when you’ve got this?

Apart from the dodgy accent, Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as a superhero who fights with his mind as much as his fists. All the actors do a good job–yay for Chiwetel Ejiofor and his swordfighting!–but Cumberbatch is the one who really drives the movie. And man, can he pull off that cape and goatee combo.

As for the story itself–okay, so it’s a pretty typical origin story without a lot of big surprises. But it continues and expands upon a pleasing trend I’ve noticed in Marvel origin stories–the importance of humility in a hero’s journey. Tony Stark started out with all the resources he needed to be a hero, but he had to get knocked down a peg, via missile, before becoming Iron Man. Thor went through the same thing–only more dramatically, because he’s Thor. Steve Rogers already was a humble, selfless guy, which is the whole reason he was picked to become Captain America.

In Doctor Strange, the theme of humility is front and center from beginning to end. Strange, being a super smart scientist, starts out believing he knows everything there is to know about how the world works. Then The Ancient One literally punches that arrogance out of him in a mind-bending, dimension-hopping scene that forces him to recognise that reality is a lot bigger than he thought. But it still takes him most of the movie to truly let go of his pride and put others ahead of himself. And that ends up being exactly what he needs to save the day. (By the way, I won’t reveal just how he saves the day in the end, but it is arguably the coolest and cleverest way a Marvel hero has ever defeated a villain.)

Image result for doctor strange
Of course, Sherlock looks cool and clever no matter what he’s doing.

In a time when much of our culture is about encouraging self-promotion and self-centredness,  it’s nice to see a big blockbuster where a hero has to learn that “it’s not about [him].” Let’s just hope that, unlike Iron Man, Doctor Strange remembers his lesson in the next movie.

If I were of a mind to over-analyse,  this movie also lends itself to a few symbolic interpretations. After all, the cosmic being the bad guys are trying to release is basically the Devil, and the scene where the good doctor is first introduced to magic could almost be seen as a jab at atheism. But…again, it’s a Marvel movie. Reading too much into a superhero story can lead to the dark side, as Batman vs. Superman showed us.

Anyhow, Doctor Strange is an excellent film that, in my opinion, beats Civil War for the title of Best 2016 Superhero Movie, even with all its faults. And it’s the rare 3D movie that is actually worth the price of 3D. Just be warned–the effects may cause eye watering and/or headaches. Watch responsibly.

Image result for doctor strange astral projection
Ask your doctor if astral projection is right for you.


Grade: A

Luke Cage

Another show has been spawned from the marriage of Netflix and Marvel. Let the geeks rejoice!

Image result for luke cage

Those who are up-to-date on the growing family of heroes who will one day make up the Defenders will recognize the title character from his role as kinda-sorta-love-interest on Jessica Jones. After all the unfortunate things that went down on that show, he has moved back to his old neighborhood in Harlem and is laying low, working in a barbershop by day and a nightclub by…well, night. But he quickly learns that it’s hard to lie low when you have superpowers, an urge to help others, and a bunch of gangsters terrorising your hometown. It takes some prodding–and some especially evil actions by said gangsters–but Luke gradually comes to embrace his unwanted super strength and become the hero Harlem needs.

I can’t talk about this show without comparing it to Daredevil and Jessica Jones. As someone who is in love with the former and was disappointed by the latter, I rank Luke Cage somewhere between them.

Let’s start by looking on the bright side. This show has two big advantages over both its predecessors. One is the music. A good chunk of the action takes place in and around a nightclub, which gives the writers an excuse to bring in lots of great jazz, soul and hip-hop performances. DD and JJ don’t have super memorable soundtracks apart from their theme songs, but here the soundtrack is one of the best parts of the whole show.

Secondly, this show has SO MUCH CLAIRE TEMPLE. I have loved Claire from the moment she arrived in Daredevil, but she never got enough screen time on that show, and she only showed up for one episode of Jessica Jones. Here she finally gets the spotlight she deserves, as she joins Luke on his quest to clean up the city and embraces her own destiny as a superhero medic. The only down side is that she’s also presented as a love interest here, and as a die-hard Clairedevil shipper, I can’t condone that. Luke’s a nice guy and all, but Claire belongs with Matt Murdock. Why must you keep knocking holes in my ships, writers??

Image result for luke cage claire temple
Her superpower is talking sense into guys with superpowers. 



The show introduces lots of fun new characters as well. My favourites were Misty Knight, a super-smart detective who helps Luke uncover the injustice in his town, and Shades, a smug yet effective villain who I loved to hate.

Speaking of villains, though, they’re not one of this show’s greatest strengths. Instead of one Big Bad, like DD and JJ faced in their first seasons, Luke has a whole posse of them, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Cottonmouth, the first crime boss introduced on the show, indulges in his evil laugh a few too many times, but is otherwise a convincing threat with nicely complicated motives. His cousin/accomplice, Mariah Dillard, is pretty much your basic corrupt politician, and she gets increasingly annoying as the season goes on. The show’s other major crime boss, Diamondback, is just…utterly ridiculous. What with the random Bible verses and pop culture references he spouts at every turn, his stupid outfits, and his weird backstory with Luke that pops up out of nowhere, I couldn’t take him very seriously.

Image result for luke cage diamondback netflix
Dude. What are you doing. Stop.

The biggest problem I had with this show, though, was the pacing. I think this first season would have been better if it were a couple episodes shorter, or if each episode was cut down to 30 minutes. The story is a lot simpler and more straightforward than JJ’s or (especially) DD’s, so it doesn’t quite fill out the 13-hour run time. As a result, everything moves veeerrryyyy slooowwwlly. Especially by superhero standards. There are relatively few action scenes and lots of boring speeches and conversations that seem only to serve as filler. And I think it’s these filler conversations that give rise to the second biggest problem with this show.

Let me preface this criticism by saying I applaud Luke Cage’s writers for being willing to take on some difficult issues surrounding race in America. And, you know, just for making a superhero show with an almost entirely non-white cast in the first place. I think this might be the first time that’s been done, and I sincerely hope it won’t be the last. With the current U.S. political climate being what it is, the arrival of a black street-level superhero feels incredibly timely.

Image result for luke cage netflix
[rap music plays]
The thing is…I could have figured all that out on my own. But this show insists on spelling out for me, repeatedly, in every episode, just how awesomely symbolic it is to have a bulletproof black man in a hoodie fighting crime. There are so many speeches to that effect (one even comes in song form!) that it starts to feel like major overkill by the end of the season. And it’s a shame, because this is one superhero show that actually has a lot of important things to say. I just think it would be more effective if it tried to say them with a  bit of subtlety.

I don’t want to end on a negative note, because I did enjoy a lot of things about Luke Cage. So let’s talk about Luke himself. Unlike DD and JJ (I’m really liking those nicknames, can you tell?), he doesn’t have a lot of emotional and ethical baggage to carry around. Sure, he’s a little angsty about his powers, which is kind of understandable since he got them by way of an evil science experiment, but for the most part he’s a nice guy who genuinely wants to help his neighbors out. For that reason, this is easily the most light-hearted of the Defenders shows so far, even though it comes with its fair share of violence and gore. When Luke does get around to fighting crime (which doesn’t happen nearly often enough), it’s a lot of fun to watch. If he didn’t have those moments of self-doubt that seem to be built into every superhero’s contract these days, I almost think he could be Marvel’s version of the Flash–an upbeat, optimistic good guy to act as a foil to all the dark anti-heroes. It’ll be interesting to see how he works with Daredevil, that’s for sure.

Overall, Luke Cage is a good introduction to a likable character. It doesn’t come close to reaching the standard set by Daredevil, but at least it’s more fun than the despair-fest that was Jessica Jones. And I have hopes that Luke may still rise to his full potential in future instalments. I’m also hoping for even more Claire, because she is seriously the best.

Image result for luke cage netflix claire temple
Isn’t it her turn to get her own show?


As everyone with a Netflix account should know by now, this is not the kind of Marvel show you watch with kids. There’s quite a bit of violence and swearing (including copious use of the n-word), and a couple NSFW scenes at the beginning. But for any adults who are interested in following the Defenders to their inevitable team-up, it’s a must-see.

Grade: B

Saving Private Ryan

So, yeah. I finally watched Saving Private Ryan.

Image result for saving private ryan

I can only watch about one war movie a year. I like them for their historical content, but they depress me. As they should–I mean, war is depressing. If a war movie doesn’t leave you thinking, “Man, war sucks,” then it hasn’t really done its job.

Saving Private Ryan does its job well. For anybody out there who doesn’t know the story (c’mon, there must a few), it’s about a squad of American soldiers in World War II, led by Tom Hanks, who make it through the invasion of Normandy only to be tasked with a dangerous mission to find one private who’s gone missing behind enemy lines. Ryan’s three brothers have all been killed in battle, and for PR reasons, the army wants to make sure at least one member of his family makes it home alive–even if a few more men have to die in the process.

A big part of what makes this movie so famous is the opening sequence, which shows D-Day in all its bloody, awful glory. As far as my knowledge goes, it’s quite historically accurate for Hollywood, but more importantly, it’s filmed so that it feels real. Some of the shots are taken from the protagonist’s point of view, and all of them have a gritty, news footage-style look that makes the viewers feel like we’re right there on Omaha Beach with the soldiers (and their severed limbs). Shaky cam and slow motion are usually my biggest pet peeves in action scenes, but this movie uses both to devastating effect. It’s truly a masterpiece of filmmaking. So…thanks for burning those images into my brain, Spielberg.

Image result for saving private ryan
“Gentlemen, this is gonna suck.”

But that scene isn’t even really an important part of the story. It’s just there to get the plot going. Afterwards, we’re introduced to a gang of battle-hardened misfits (and one very un-battle-hardened misfit) who have to deal with the ridiculousness of their mission: to risk their lives searching through Nazi-infested territory just so one guy can go home early. Naturally, there’s a lot of resentment. But as their search goes on, some of the soldiers start to view the mission as redemptive, a way to make something good–even a small thing–out of their horrible war experiences.

I think it’s okay to include spoilers in this review, since the movie’s been around a long time, and it’s famous enough that even if you haven’t seen it, you probably know how it ends. Having said that, if you don’t know how this movie ends and would like it to be a surprise, you might want to stop reading…

Image result for nathan fillionsaving private ryan
I leave you with…Surprise Nathan Fillion! In a brown coat, no less!

Yes, it’s very sad that most of Tom Hanks’ crew dies at the end, although I’ve almost come to expect that sort of thing in war movies. But the person I felt most sorry for at the end was Private Ryan himself. It’s one thing to watch a bunch of good men give their lives for you (while the slightly more cowardly one gets to live), but then Captain Miller has to top it off by telling Ryan to “earn this.” I can’t imagine living with that kind of guilt trip hanging over me. How could anyone ever “earn” a sacrifice like that? It’s clear at the end of the movie that Ryan doesn’t feel he has–even though his large, loving and respectful family seems to speak well of his character. Even at the end of his life, he’s still wondering if he’s a good enough man to justify his survival. Poor guy.

But in a way, the ending was sort of fitting, because by then I was starting to see this movie as a sort of allegory for World War II as a whole. Private Ryan is us–the American people (and, by extension, any other countries that would have been Nazi-fied if the Allies hadn’t won, but this movie’s focus is on the U.S.). Thousands upon thousands of soldiers died to secure our freedom, and what have we done with it in the decades since? Have we “earned it”? Have we made the world a better place?

Well, we’re nearing the end of a horrible, horrible election year, so right now the easy answer seems to be, “Nope!” But on a deeper level, that question kind of misses the point. There is no way to “earn” someone else’s sacrifice. That’s the whole point of a sacrifice–it’s voluntary, it’s undeserved, and it’s not fair. Life and freedom, however we received them, are gifts. Not debts to be repaid, but opportunities to pass on a little more light to the world. Private Ryan may not have cured cancer or invented a better light bulb, but by the glimpse we see of him at the end, it looks like he made a few people happy. And that’s not nothing.

Image result for saving private ryan
Plus he goes on to become Jason Bourne, so there’s that.

Anywho, I find Saving Private Ryan far less depressing if I discount Miller’s last words. Even with all the bad that’s gone on in the world since the ’40s, and continues to go on, there are good people out there who might not be around today if it weren’t for guys like this movie’s soldier crew. If they could see that, I hope they’d think their mission was at least somewhat worthwhile.

To find out more about those real-life heroes, I’d highly recommend another Spielberg-influenced, documentary-style WWII project: HBO’s Band of Brothers series. It’s a lot like this movie, only with less fiction. I also highly recommend Saving Private Ryan, obviously–to those with strong stomachs and an interest in history, anyway.  I think I chose my annual war movie wisely. But there is another year coming up in just a couple months, and I seem to be running out of Spielberg flicks. Any suggestions for my next war movie?

Grade: A