Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) – An Amazing Subversion of Expectations

   “The Last Jedi” is my second favorite Star Wars film. This is a series that is second only to “The Empire Strikes Back,” and in many ways has greater depth even though the structure of this film is a bit of a mess. What this film does though is upset the status quo, delve into the reasons the First Order and Resistance have for even existing in the first place and also a much deeper analysis of “The Force” that we haven’t really gotten since the Original Trilogy. Before I get into spoilers, this is a film with the best characters and themes thus far, amazing character development and emotional payoff, amazing action and it is easily the most beautiful of all the Star Wars films. Seriously, check it out.

The film was directed and written by Rian Johnson while being produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman.

The story involves the Resistance attempting to escape from the First Order who are attacking them after the destruction of Starkiller Base, while Rey is seeking Luke’s help in their fight. Things soon get more complicated when the First Order executes a trap that forces members the Resistance to seek outside help  to escape the First Order trap, and a clash within the Resistance itself between Poe and Vice-Admiral Holdo after General Leia is incapacitated.

SPOILERS

The Pros: The Cinematography – This is visually the best looking of any film in the Star Wars franchise. Whether it is the filming of fight sequences in space or within a ship…the camera executes the action beautifully and each planet was somewhere I wanted to return back to after it was done.

The Universe – This Star Wars has quite a few different environments and animals. From the adorable porgs, to crystal foxes, to the salt world of Crait, Luke’s Island and Snoke’s Flagship and a Casino World. I was never bored because there was always more to see as each environment was so rich.

The Reason for Resistance – One of the major themes of the film is the reasons to resist. We see this as a class struggle in regards to oppression through the eyes of kids and Rose, a character we are introduced in this film…and also that personal identity is a huge role too and that finding the balance between them is important. Poe is driven by ego and glory for much of what he does but comes to see that it is bigger than each fight, the war is larger than any one person as the individuals and groups define what it means to resist, just as much as if not more than the personal reasons to fight.

The Cost of War – So many people die in this film. There are lots of heroic sacrifices, but also the people who are being oppressed by those profiting from the war, the deaths of so many soldiers on both sides who die. You feel that in this and it does a good job humanizing both the Resistance and the First Order. War is hell and sometimes no one wins, this film captures that theme beautifully.

The Characters – The characters are the best part of this film. This film is all about relationships between characters, be it Leia and Poe, Rose and Finn, Kylo and Rey or Luke and Rey. Each relationship gets developed over the course of the film and reveals layers to the characters that didn’t exist in “The Force Awakens.”

Vice Admiral Holdo – Holdo is a character who has got a lot of crap from the fanbase, but she was one of my favorite characters in the film. She was respected for winning in the past but Poe doesn’t get that. She is presented as an antagonist through a good portion of the film, and the payoff of who she actually is and what she is doing is great.

Rose and Finn – It is through these characters that we get to see another face of the Resistance and why they fight. Finn is originally a part because of his friends and is even willing to leave in order to protect Rey but Rose reminds him of the bigger picture and that at the core they exist to fight oppression. It is handled on the casino world and seeing their friendship bloom was one of the more memorable parts of this film.

Master Luke Skywalker – Luke is done with everything. Like before in the Original Trilogy guilt defines him and it is mistake that helped lead to Kylo Ren’s creation and that guilt is something he carries with him and resists until the end. He is wanting to destroy the Jedi order and die as the last Jedi until Rey helps him realize there is so much more that he’s forgotten and that he can still make a difference and change things. Mark Hamill is fantastic.

General Leia Organa – I miss Carrie Fisher. It was great seeing her in this, her whole drive is survival and protecting the Resistance from the First Order. She is the mentor who is there to remind the young folks there is a time and place for glory but you have to work to keep everyone alive, or there won’t be anyone else left to fight. This was my favorite presentation of her besides “Empire Strikes Back” and I’ll miss her in these films, now that she’s gone.

Rey and Kylo Ren – One of the core relationships is that between Kylo and Rey both of who are alone and seeking more beyond the old order as so much of who they were was tied to the legends of the past. They are connected but still adversaries and it is great relationship to see explored as Ren becomes more confident and much more of a bully and Rey finds an identity outside of her parents and her expectations of Luke and the Jedi.

Subverting Expectations – If you go in expecting “The Empire Strikes Back” or another version of “Return of the Jedi” or “A New Hope” prepare to be surprised. This is a film where most things don’t work out for any characters. Things change, both in the First Order and the Resistance in regards to their identities…but it doesn’t repeat the cycle. We get away from The Ring Cycle a bit here and from that “Star Wars” seems to finally be developing it’s own identity outside of the past. We also see The Force not being tied to bloodlines and the fantasy feel of the past films and midichlorians are implied to no longer be a factor (Rey’s background and the last scene of the film). I loved that, this is no longer the Skywalker show, Star Wars has to be bigger than one family drama and I can’t wait to see where the series goes.

Everybody Loses – Poe finds out he was wrong, Rose and Finn get betrayed, Rey isn’t able to turn Kylo Ren and even the Resistance only barely survives. The First Order isn’t in great shape either after the events that take place and it is going to be transforming further or it will collapse. That is powerful and with it we see the most potential for change both within the Resistance and the First Order. They’ve lost too much to remain static.

Okay: Welcome to the Casino / Side Quest – This first point is related to the second point, there is a side plot on a casino world in order for Rose and Finn to get a code breaker in order to break onto Snokes’s ship so that they shutdown the Empire’s ability to track the Resistance’s fleet. It explores the meaning of the Resistance so I’m not putting it as a total negative but it could have been shorter and achieved the same purpose in the plot, and I would have traded a few Finn and Rose scenes for more scenes with the codebreaker played by Del Toro named DJ. He is fun.

Structure and Clutter – The greatest issue with this film for me was the structure and how cluttered some of the different plots are. It wasn’t bad, I saw this film twice but it does feel long during some of the side tangents. The overall story and themes greatly overwhelm this in quality though and it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the film.

This is probably going to be in my Top 5 films at the end of the year. This is a film I’ve watched twice and is easily the most fun I’ve had at a film this year since “Baby Driver.” I can’t wait to see where things go after this film as it upsets so much of the status quo. I am a guy who loves the original Extended Universe and I always will, but I’m glad they didn’t repeat it (and I still enjoy it as another timeline of Star Wars). By the time of “The Force Awakens” I was done with the Skywalker drama, predictability will kill this franchise as so many of the problems that plagued the Prequels was the lazy recycling of the Original Trilogy. This film is strange, different, takes chances and changes things and honestly, it is the only way Star Wars can grow beyond the corner it was written in to. Here is to Disney embracing that change and giving us more great stories like this film.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10. Second best Star Wars film thus far.

 

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016): A Solid Part of the Series and Becoming a Teacher

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     Dreamworks has two great Franchises that still manage to put out great animated films. Those Franchises are “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Kung Fu Panda.” These are series that take inspiration from their worlds (fantasy, Kung Fu films) and keep the characters and plots real and at times deep, while still managing to have a sense of humor. “Kung Fu Panda 3” is no different, though I think “Kung Fu Panda 2” is the better film, which I’ll go into at another time when I go through the first and second film.

      “Kung Fu Panda 3” was directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger and produced by Melissa Cobb.

    The story involves Po (Jack Black) being found by his father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) and returning back his father’s village to learn the art of chi when Kai (J.K. Simmons) breaks free from the Spirit Realm and is seeking to consume everyone’s Chi. Po must learn the art before all fall before Kai and the Masters whose chi he possess and now controls.

SPOILERS ahead

 The Pros: The World – The world is a fantastic fantasy world populated by humanoid animals that live in China. We have far off villages like the Panda one that are almost Tibetan in theme and also the main city with the Jade Temple which is reminiscent of Beijing. The world feels lived in too and the heroes who walk among the people are celebrated as such, like celebrities.

The Animation – The animation goes between classically inspired painting in telling back stories or montages, to the flowing 3D that makes up most of the film. It truly is beautiful.

The Soundtrack – Hans Zimmer creates an amazing score and pulls on classical Chinese music for a lot of his score. It is wonderful and pulls on the heart strings and elevates the action when it needs to, but I wouldn’t expect any less from Zimmer who is a master of his craft.

The Characters – The main characters are fantastic and have great moments that give them complexity and reason for their actions. This is a character driven story and it is the relationships that inform the action, like any good action movie.

Li Shan – Bryan Cranston plays Li Shan (Po’s Father) and does a great job as a man who lies to be with his son again as he says the Pandas know the art of Chi (even though it has been lost to time) and spends time connecting with Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping and in the process helping Po realize that he isn’t alone, which saves his son multiple times.

Mr. Ping – James Hong is an amazing voice actor and I’ve loved him in his role as Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping. We see him go through jealousy when Li Shan finds Po but also him get over it as he becomes a part of the Panda Village and gets the chance to be a father again to all the baby Pandas as well as council Po in the coming battle when Po feels only alone.

Master Shifu – Dustin Hoffman is a great actor and he has the chance to shine here as the one challenging Po to be better and that he still has much to learn. Sadly we don’t get to see him at his height as Kai consumes his chi, leaving it up to Po to rescue him. In the end he has humility though and asks to learn the art of chi from Po after the final battle.

Grand Master Oogway – Oogway’s chi is consumed in order for Kai to enter the mortal realm and through it all he is the one guiding all of them as it was the Panda’s of old who made him realize that it would be there that that the Dragon Warrior (Po) would be born. In the end Po gets to say good-bye to him too and we see how much of Yoda type figure Oogway has always been.

Kai – I liked Kai and not just because J. K. Simmons voiced him. This is a character who felt left behind as he watched his friend who he saved found peace…and he couldn’t stand that. He was a general so to him power was things and this what leads him to take chi from others. In the end his greed consumes him though as he misses the point of what power really was.

Po – This is the film of Po not only getting comfortable in his skin but becoming a teacher of others as he realizes it is playing to peoples’ strengths that can help them master themselves. He also is saved by the village when Kai nearly consumes his chi as it is in him realizing all his different identities that he realizes how he is the Dragon Warrior and uses his infinite chi to explode Kai as Kai’s body is unable to contain it all.

Finding Self – Finding self is a major theme of the the film as Po doesn’t really know who he is beyond being a warrior who cares about his friends. It is only after he becomes a teacher that he begins to realize how much he doesn’t know again and that who he is, is a part of everyone else. It is this individualist yet collectivist belief that he becomes the Dragon Warrior.

Power in Community – Kai is alone and uses others as slaves in order to take more. Po is someone who is dependent fully on others and it is in that difference of the many versus the one that his full power is unlocked. One stick can break easily, but it is harder to break a bundle.

Taking v. Serving and Enlightenment – The other theme of the film involves taking versus serving…all the characters who grow are those who learn to see outside of themselves and their own selfishness. Li Shan tells the truth, Po serves others, Oogway defeats Kai the first time by protecting others. This is where true power is unlocked in the film.

Family is Greater Than Blood – Mr. Ping is not Po’s blood and the movie makes a point of that, and it also makes a point of showing that Mr. Ping is Po’s second father and that he needs both of his fathers and it is because of both of them he lives and has grown to be who he is. This is an awesome message that really illustrates that family is greater than blood.

Okay; The Other Masters – Master Mantis, Monkey, Snake and Crane are all comedic relief and Master Tigress is relegated to action hero who doesn’t get to make any choices. This is sad as they got some great exploration over the last two films. They aren’t ever annoying but this was a missed opportunity.

The Pandas of the Village – There is a line between comedic village and real people and I don’t know where the Pandas fall on this line. So I’m putting them at okay.

Kai’s End Game – Was he going to conquer the world after consuming everyone’s chi or did he plan to just consume forever? I wish this had been set down a little better.

      This was a really good film, for me it was “Finding Dory” levels of enjoyable, though it didn’t reach original Pixar quality like “Inside Out” or even touch the perfect film of “Kubo and the Two Strings,” but it worked for all that it was. This is Dreamworks paying tribute to Kung Fu films and taking the philosophy into the film while giving us fun and comedic characters…as well as drama and family. If you haven’t seen it or any of the films in this Franchise, go and check them out. If you have kids they will love it and the world is so much deeper that it appears at first glance, just like the Kung Fu films it draws inspiration from. The action is used to make a larger point and tell the drama of people who show us the ways we can grow as well.

Final Score: 9 / 10 I’d rate it higher if Kai had been explored better and if the other Masters had been treated better and not just played for comedic relief.

Star Trek: The Animated Series – Season 1, Episode 2 – “Yesteryear” – Spock’s Search for Peace

Star Trek The Animated Series Season 1 ep 2

    “Yesteryear” is a great Spock and Time Travel episode. It is also one of the few times we get to see an Andorian character explored outside of the horrible “Enterprise” series. It is a subtle episode that manages to bring a lot depth and show a lot without having to say much. It’s focus on Spock also lends it a lot of strength too as there aren’t any side plots to distract from that core story.

    The episode was directed by Hal Sutherland and written by D. C. Fontana.

      The story involves the crew traveling to the planet of the Time Vortex in order to help some archaeologists explore the past of the Federation. When Kirk and Spock return though they find no one recognizes Spock and that he died as a child in this timeline forcing Spock to travel back to the past in order to prevent his death.

The Pros: The Archaeologists – The archaeologist team has a great look! We have a woman of color in charge and an alien with a beak and wings working with her. They have a minor role but they work with Spock in order to restore the Timeline.

The Guardian of Forever – The Guardian is haunting, just like the episode it first appeared in in “The Original Series.” It also lays down the rules too that Spock can only change one big event, illustrating that actions will have consequences before he even goes back in time. James Doohan plays the voice of the Guardian and other characters in the episode.

Kirk – Kirk is the only one who remembers Spock and it is he working with Spock to learn what happened in the timeline where Thelin is now his First Officer in order to bring Spock back to life and save his mother. He is supportive and we see just how deep the friendship is, from them exploring Orion together before the Timeline was changed and afterwords where Kirk is the only one who knows what happened.

Thelin – Thelin is the First Officer in the Timeline that Spock died as a child. He is a cool character and I would have liked to see more of him. He is a warrior but supports Spock in restoring the Timeline since Spock’s desire to save his mother from dying is something he finds admirable. He is one of my favorite minor characters and I wish Andorians made more appearances on “Star Trek.”

Amanda Grayson – Majel Barrett does a wonderful job as Spock’s Mom. She is the outsider on Vulcan and is doing all she can to support Spock on a path she cannot take. I feel bad for her character as she is powerless to do anything for Spock beyond show him love. She in many ways is just as much an outsider as she is, except she has chosen not to become Vulcan wholly in philosophy, much like Spock does later.

Sarek – Sarek is a harsh father and complex character. He is very much a man of Vulcan who sees the Vulcan way as the purest way to peace. It is for this reason I get why he is the ambassador to Vulcan. Sadly he does not hold other Vulcans accountable for when they bully his son though he supports Spock in setting things right for himself. When old Spock pretends to be his cousin he listens to him as well when old Spock tells him to seek to understand his son. It is a touching scene and Sarek keeps having the feeling that he knows Old Spock even though Spock is going by a different name. Mark Lenard is once again fantastic in this role.

Spock – Spock is the outsider who is choosing the Vulcan way though as a child that is hard. It takes old Spock showing him the good in the Vulcan way in harsh choices (to keep his pet alive and let it suffer after it saved his life, or to let it die with dignity) that make him see why logic is so important. It is after this that he stands up to the bullies and shows them the Vulcan Neck Pinch he learned from Old Spock. At the end he mourns the choice he made to kill his pet so it wouldn’t suffer but is grateful that the timeline is reestablished and that he can once again fulfill his role as First Officer living the Vulcan Way in the Federation.

    This episode shows the pressure that was on Spock to conform to Vulcan society and how his father never gave him any other choice. This causes conflict in their relationship later as Sarek’s refusal to show affection and only anger or disappointment mostly pushed Spock away and it really wasn’t until Sarek’s death in “The Next Generation” that they were able to resolve these differences. We see that he does love Spock though, and tried to show it as best he could.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Inside Out (2015): The Importance of All Emotions and Another Pixar Masterpiece

Inside-Out-Official-Poster

  “Inside Out” is the best Pixar Film I have seen that wasn’t “Toy Story 3” since “Up” and “Wall-E” Which are my favorite films of the Pixar creations. Like “Wall-E” and “Up” this is a film that explores what it means to be human and brings balance as it is an experience of all the emotions. Pixar has been a company that has mostly made Gold and for me this film was in the Top 3, where in the Top 3 would take a re-watching of those films but this is just as good of quality of film as “Up” and “Wall-E.” I’ll get into the reasons why that is.

   The film was directed by Pete Docter who also co-wrote the story and screenplay, screenplay was also by Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley. It was produced by Jonas Rivera and the co-writer of the story was Ronnie Del Carmen.

   The story is about Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) and her emotions, which are beings inside of her who are thrown into chaos when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Joy (Amy Poehler, who is the lead emotion controls all the Core Emotions that run Riley as a person but when Sadness (Phyllis Smith) creates a Core Emotion Joy attempts to stop it leading them to be lost in Long Term Memory and seeing to get back to Headquarters before Riley loses herself.

SPOILERS

The Pros: The Concept – The idea of emotions being personified is really cool as well as leaving it ambiguous if Riley is the one controlling the emotions and leading them to do things, or if they are they are the ones controlling her. There is support for both ideas that is explored over the course of the film and it lends it power. Also the idea of giving us characters so that an individual character can find balance is a powerful idea.

The Writing – The dialogue is hilarious! There is a moment in the end when Riley gives a bottle to a boy who dropped it and puberty is hit and all the emotions in his head are panicking and screaming, “GIRL! GIRL! GIRL!” And many other moments that are similar through Riley’s development through childhood.

The Soundtrack – Michael Giacchino did an amazing job! The soundtrack is whimsical, dramatic, serious…whatever circumstances demand and it adds so much to the change the characters go through.

The Characters – From Riley’s emotions, to her parents…we see a huge complex array of characters who are true to reality and end up being so much more than the archetypes they represent.

Bing Bong – Bing Bong is Riley’s imaginary friend who is lost in Long Term Memory. Everything he does is his quest to get back to Riley and live the life they used to live. Richard King gives so much heart to this character who in the end sacrifice himself so that Joy can be free from the Pit and that Riley will be able to be happy again…in his realization that Riley has grown beyond needing him and there is one last thing he can do to make her happy.

The Family – Riley and her parents are fleshed out characters who feel real. They have flaws but at their core love one another and it is reflected.

Riley’s Mother – The mother is controlled by Sadness and is someone who cares deeply, especially about Riley. She is the first to reach out to Riley but also dreams of what might have been with her Brazilian ex. She finds contentment with her husband in the end when he shows the spontaneity he lost and she is the one who is always there for Riley.

Riley’s Father – Riley’s Father is someone trapped in his work but who still finds time to try and be there for his daughter. In the end the move to San Francisco and work not going as planned make it more difficult, but in the end he shows that so much of what he does is for her. He is also the reason she has a Hockey Island in her sub-conscience and a Jokester Island as part of her Core Personality.

Riley – Riley is a fascinating character! She is the only one we see who has both Male Emotions (Emotions represented by Male Voice Actors being Lewis Black for Anger and Bill Hader for Fear) but whose primarily controllers are still the Female Voice Actors being Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and Joy (Amy Poehler) along with Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Her arc is learning to feel sadness and knowing it okay to feel sadness and that she doesn’t have to be the happy little girl for her parents as the move to San Francisco is hard for her and she loses her best friend in the process and is cut off from all her stuff that holds memories. This eventually leads to her running away and later returning as she is finally able to feel Sad which Joy had been repressing throughout her life.

The Emotions – The Emotions change over the course of the film and they have a great dynamic! Each of them is in control in different situations as the other 4 do not know what to do. They are Fear, Disgust, Anger, Sadness and Joy who is their leader.

Fear – Hader does a great job as Fear as we see him in charge of sleep and being a big reason why Nightmares happen as Fear is in control of the dark (which makes sense). He does a great job protecting Riley though he sometimes crosses into Paranoia and can be easily controlled by Anger or Disgust.

Disgust – Disgust is the one who helps Riley adapt. Whether it is adapting her pallat or her surrounding as Disgust is in charge of social life and the food she eats. It is a really cool concept and we see that Disgust is a Team player who ties into the other emotions. Mindy Kaling does a wonderful job as her.

Anger – Lewis Black is wonderful as Anger! He has so many rants that fit what is going on in Riley’s mind. From a memory of an annoying commercial setting him off to him eventually controlling things when Joy and Sadness leave. Anger is one of the strongest emotions but is related ot fear as at the core Anger wants to be happy and this leads to Anger’s plan to get Riley back to Minnesota where she was happy. He later changes his mind but by then they have lost all control and Riley is losing the ability to feel. He is a protector type and also Riley’s ability to stand up for herself. It is Disgust’s and Fear’s use of him that open up Headquarters to Sadness and Joy.

Sadness – Sadness is repressed but wants to be a part of Riley and is a part of Riley that is hidden away. For her it is her knowledge of things that make Joy messing things up lead to a possible solution as she always sees the worst. Her arc is realizing her value and with that being as much a part of Riley as Joy as both Joy and Sadness are so interconnected since when a Joyful memory passes there will be Sad Nostalgia. She is the one who would have gotten Joy out of a lot of bad situations if Joy had not been so spontaneous. Phyllis is fantastic in this role.

Joy – Amy Poehler gives so much life to this very Woody-like Control Freak who wants all of Riley’s life to be just happy memories. Her arc over this is realizing that Sadness is an important part of an individual as she feels sadness both for Bing Bong helping her save Riley and sacrificing himself in the process and being trapped and alone and afraid for Riley. Her arc is realizing that Sadness is connected to Joy and that Sadness is just as important and that a whole life isn’t one that is just happy but one where a person feels everything and is allowed to grow as growth is stopped when emotions are repressed as she was doing to Sadness.

It’s Okay to be Sad – The core message is that sadness is important that it is not a bad emotion (really none of them are). The key is what we do. Sometimes running away isn’t the best option but sometimes it is…and within that not suppressing or letting the emotions control is where balance is found and from that recognizing that sorrow and sadness are an essential part of what makes one human.

Emotions Control the Individual or Vise Versa – An amazing idea that the film has that I realized when watching it is that the emotions are a part of Riley so have limited agency. When Riley was wanting to feel sad Sadness acted, Joy may have tried to suppress it but Riley was seeking out that emotion to be a whole again and in the end all of Joy’s actions couldn’t stop that as Riley falling apart made her realize the actions and agency of Riley mattered. Another way to see that is that the Emotions are Ghosts in the Machine and that it was them seeing the Machine break down that lead to them reestablishing control. Both interpretations work but I like the one where Riley is the one controlling them even if sometimes in extreme situations they control too…as when we see her balanced they are all working together showing harmony between the “Ghosts” and the “Machine.”

Balance – Riley’s quest for balance is her seeking to accept and recognize the sadness she feels but to not let that destroy her Core Personality…that even as things were hard she could still Imagine, feel love for her family and still allow room for her interest in Hockey and to be funny. It is in her becoming imbalanced and not feeling that she finally forces the Emotions or Joy finally chooses to accept Sadness as essential that she feels and opens up to her parents and from it is able to feel once more and be whole even in all the pain she is going through.

   This is a timeless classic and well worth your time. I expect that everytime I see it I will notice and learn something knew as they sought out those who study Psychology for a living to create the mind of Riley and the other characters as well as the expression of the emotions. The fact that they leave the power of Emotions open is powerful too as we never know if Riley was the one shaping the story the entire time, or if it was the emotions doing so. How much agency did Riley or her Emotions have? That is something that could be debated endlessly. If you are looking for another Pixar Classic that is one of the best they’ve made, you will not be disappointed. It is a favorite I can’t wait to see again.

Final Score: 10 / 10. Will most likely be in the Top 5 at the end of this year.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Season 3, Episodes 15-17 – “The Mortis Arc” – Dark Destiny and Philosophy of the Force

FatherMemoryWipesAnakin-GOM

     “The Mortis Arc” is an arc that has a lot of great character development and some interesting exploration of philosophy and the force, but also has some cons to in that the Family functions as archetypes and not actual characters. For this reason I wish it had truly been all in the heads of our characters and not an actual plain of existence as it made things to great when it was powerful just when it was personal without all the “Chosen One” bs that pervaded the Prequels.

     “Overlords” was directed by Steward Lee and written by Christian Taylor, “Altar of Mortis” was directed by Brian Kalin O’Connell and written by Christian Taylor and “Ghosts of Mortis” was directed by Steward Lee and written by Christian Taylor.

    The story involves Anakin, Obi-Wan and Ahsoka being sent to explore an ancient Jedi Distress call that pulls them into Mortis where the Father and his Daughter (Incarnation of the Lightside of the Force) and Son (Incarnation of the Darkside of the Force) do battle as he strives to keep them in balance. We learn he brought them there so that Anakin could take his place as he can control both, fulfilling his role as the Chosen One. Things go wrong though after the Son kills the Daughter and it is up to our heroes to stop him before he destroys the Universe.

The Pros: Mortis – Mortis is a really cool world. There is destruction and creation in flux as the Father keeps the balance between the two. It has reminds me a lot of some of the Ancient Sith Worlds and Dothomir as we see that the three beings cannot be defined as Jedi and Sith, for all of them are beyond that in different ways. That was a cool idea, that should have been explored more.

Qui-Gon Jin – Qui-Gon’s ghost makes an appearance and counsels both Obi-Wan and Anakin! Sadly since he can’t see the future he doesn’t know what the Chosen One prophecy means and the destruction that Anakin will wrought, only the Father knows and it dies with him. This makes Qui-Gon’s appearance sad, even though his moments with Obi-Wan especially are touching. Liam Neeson came back to play this role too!

Ahsoka – Ahsoka gets infected by the son and we see what Darkside Ahsoka would be like. Her pride and anger are great and she is a good fighter. One she is healed by  the Daughter’s sacrifice it is her thinking that stops a turned Anakin and the Son from getting off the planet and we also learn she is a tech. as she was the one fixing their ship. Her fears come from her future self who warn her to leave Anakin so she won’t fall. Her future self is right too as Anakin will become greater than Dooku in the Dark Side when he becomes Darth Vader.

Obi-Wan Kenobi – Obi-Wan experiences echoes of things to come as he tries to have them leave the planet no matter what as the longer they stay the more they risk the Universe with the Son’s escape. He isn’t wrong either as Anakin going to face the son alone leads to his turn as he sees the future and is willing to risk everything so he doesn’t become Darth Vader, even the Universe. It shows Anakin’s naivety and how his ends justify the means  and attachment will lead to his downfall.

Anakin Skywalker – In this we see how Anakin’s guilt and fear drive him to do horrendous acts. From slaughtering the Sand People and to what he will do later as in his vision he sees the slaughter of the younglings and the strangling of Padme and loss of Obi-Wan. It is this that leads him to work with the Son as he will go to any means, even becoming the Dark Side now to prevent that future. It is that drives Anakin at his core and where Darth Vader’s need for control comes from as he has lost so much already.

The Philosophy of the Force – The Force is about balance, the Son and Daughter need each other and the Son mourns the Daughter’s murder by his hands. It takes the Father doing away with it all together for the world to end and for the Force Gods to finally die out. The Dark Side and Light Side need one another just as all people need passion and calm, anger and kindness…all are a part of the whole.

The Cons: The Limitations of Archetypes – It didn’t feel like the Father, Son and Daughter had personalities beyond what they represented. This was the hardest part of the story for me as they were meant to be a new species but that is mostly unknown, they function more as a plot device for Anakin’s reveal of his power and destiny which for meant this could have worked as a force vision or our heroes trapped in their heads as them facing their fears was the best part.

Dark Side Like a Virus – The Son infects Ahsoka by biting her, this simplified the Dark Side a lot and made me wonder why he just didn’t bite Obi-Wan and Anakin and take over from there. It cheapened choice by having Ahsoka have her choice to go dark taken away from her. She was the Padme stand-in for Episode III and it sucked as she is just as possible at going Dark as Anakin.

   I really enjoyed this arc, even with all it’s limitations. It gives us a chance to understand the Force better than we ever have before and to get the motivations and fears of Ahsoka, Anakin and Obi-Wan who are some of the best characters in this series. This is reason enough to watch the arc in the entirety and even though the Beings of Mortis don’t work as well, what they do and what it reveals about our heroes is reason enough to see it.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10

Avatar: The Last Airbender – Book 2 “Earth,” Episode 9 – “Bitter Work” – Learning to Stand

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     “Bitter Work” is a favorite episode. This is the episode that explores the philosophies of Firebending and Earthbending and through these learning about Airbending and Waterbending and how all of them are connected and can help strengthen whatever Bending a person is born with. It is within this quest of balance that we get to see just how wounded Zuko is as well as see Aang changed by the teaching of Toph to find the balance within himself in order to accomplish Earthbending.

    The episode was directed by Ethan Spaulding and written by Aaron Ehasz.

    The story involves Toph teaching Aang how to Earthbend and his trouble doing so since Airbending is Earthbending’s opposite and Iroh helping Zuko learn how to bend Lightning so that he can take on Azula. Each goes into the philosophy of the practices and deals with the dilemmas both Aang and Zuko face within themselves.

The Pros: Katara – Katara’s learning is compassionate and we see how receptive the pacifist Aang has always been to it compared to the blunt and brutal Toph. They have a great dynamic and we see just how much she cares about Aang both as a friend and teacher.

Sokka – Sokka gets trapped in the ground and it is up to Aang to rescue him. We see him swear he’ll be a vegetarian and after not as he tries to negotiate with the little animal he was trying to catch. When it’s giant mother arrives he panics and even trapped he listens to Aang rant even though Aang’s metaphorical situation is where is currently. He really shows how great of a friend he is.

Toph – Toph is a brutal teacher and we see that she is of the mindset that a person needs to discover what she is teaching on their own. In this way she eggs Aang on until he stands up for himself as Earthbending is all about holding your ground and not letting anyone knock you down.

Iroh – Iroh is truly a Bending Master. He learned how to bend Lightning away and redirect it from studying Waterbenders and we see that the other benders philosophies inform his own. This is why he has such great balance and tries to help Zuko experience healing too as after he was hit by Azula Iroh relived the memory of his boy and the loss of him at Ba Sing Se.

Zuko – Zuko is imbalanced because of the abuse he experienced from his father. To him the world and how unfair it is is his Father and him learning the Elements is not only to defeat Azula but to impress his father and gain his honor back. This leads to him leaving Iroh to seek death in the storm as he rages as how the world has never let off on him and always punched him down, the world in this case is clearly Ozai, the demon who haunts his past and present.

The Philosophy of Bending and Finding Balance – Balance is acceptance of the past, being able to adapt like a Waterbender, passion of a Firebender, tranquility of an Airbender and strong and steady as an Earthbender. This is Aang’s quest and metaphorically the quest of all our characters for it is only in balance that inner and outer victory is achieved.

This is a great episode that shows us that even though Iroh has been through so much loss with his exile, the death of his son and wounded Zuko that he still manages to find balance within himself. He is the example that all our characters strive to be in each of their own ways as it is only through balance among all the Elements that Ozai and Azula can be defeated. This is never stated outright but it is implied in the power that comes from knowing all the Elements and the power revealed when all are working together or philosophies from them are used by Iroh to strengthen his own Firebending. Seeing Zuko’s pain was powerful too and you realize just how much damage his father did too and that he hasn’t fully faced the abuse he grew up with.

Final Score: 10 / 10

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Avatar: The Last Airbender – Book 1 “Water,” Episode 20 – “The Siege of the North Part 2” – Imbalance and Sacrifice

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   I really liked the Finale of Book 1, “Water.” The Finale episode to be precise as the questions surrounding the invisible Northern Water Tribe politics were pushed to the side and the Spirit World was brought to the forefront and we got to see the loyalties of all our characters displayed, and where those loyalties came together. We also get Kaiju Aang when we see that you shouldn’t underestimate the power of a pissed of Spirit Fish.

    “The Siege of the North Part 2” was directed by Dave Filoni and written by Aaron Ehasz.

      The story picks up where we left off with Zuko running off with Aang’s body which leads to Team Avatar (including Yue) going to search for where Zuko took him. At the same time Zhao attacks and talks about his plan to kill the Moon to end the threat of Waterbending for good, and to fulfill his own pride….as all this is going on and the Siege continues Aang journey’s into the Spirit World where he meets Roku who tells him he must seek out Koh who is older than the Spirit and Ocean and will know how to find them.

The Pros:

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Koh – Koh is one of my favorite characters in the Avatar Universe. Koh doesn’t care about anything but stealing faces and no doubt the power that comes with it, but Koh has rules. If you show no emotion, Koh can’t steal your face. Koh tries to frighten Aang and tells about how a past Avatar tried to kill him because Koh stole the face of his girlfriend but Aang doesn’t flinch so Koh describes how the Spirits took the form of Fish swimming in the form of Yin and Yang. After Aang leaves he ominously promises that they will meet again. Koh has a great design, looking like a centipede and constantly changing faces of all the faces that have been stolen. I had high hopes for Koh appearing and playing a major role in Korra, which I’ll go into when I do my “How I would have done “Legend of Korra” if I’d been the showrunner.”

The Spirit World – We see a Baboon spirit meditating and Roku’s spirit tells Aang to seek Koh for answers. The area is like a giant forest and the dark tree where Koh is looks very dark and threatening. The Spirit World is really well done, it is easy to get lost and the Spirits are like animals but not completely.

Admiral Zhao – Zhao found a library long ago where he learned that the Ocean and Moon spirits had physical bodies and could be destroyed, it was this reason that he knew victory was possible over the Northern Water Tribe and he nearly succeeds too. If he had killed the Ocean Spirit as well Aang could not have been possessed by it, but before that he is victorious for a while. He also loses to Zuko again showing that in the end his pride and hubris are what defeats him as the Ocean Spirit pulls him into the Spirit World for what he did to the Moon.

Zuko – Zuko finds some level of balance at the end. The story ends with him being tired after Katara soundly defeats him and they rescue Aang. Aang later rescues Zuko so he doesn’t freeze and after Zuko defeats Zhao again he leaves with Iroh, no longer obsessed with the Avatar and only feeling tired after how battered and abused he has become and seeing Zhao’s life as a warning sign of what he could become.

Iroh – Iroh has crossed into the Spirit World we learn in this episode, which says a lot about Iroh’s character. This is a man who has so much balance he can pass into a world that is extremes and chaos where your worst enemy is yourself or spirits far more ancient than the Ocean and Moon. Iroh also tries to stop Zhao after Zhao kills the Moon following up on his word of whatever Zhao did to the Spirits, he would do to him much worse. We also see him at peace knowing Zuko, at least for now will not be consumed.

Minor Character Moments – Chief Amook tells Sokka of his dream and how he saw this day coming and how much he misses his daughter, even though he is proud of her. Pakku’s moments where he makes Katara a Master is also a great moment too, worthy of comment.

The Siege of the North – The Siege of the North is revealed in all it’s glory this episode. We see Fire Nation tanks, Master Pakku going full Master with a tornado of water around him, we see legions of troops breaking through the Ice Walls and with the rise of the Moon the Fire Nation fought back, until the Moon is destroyed and the Fire Nation rises again…until Kaiju Aang who is possessed by the angry Ocean Spirit annihilates them all. It’s a powerful battle and so much happens.

Team Avatar – We see Team Avatar be pretty active in this. From Sokka active on the battlfield, to his sorrow at his good-bye to Yue and the moment of hope where Sokka, Aang, Momo and Katara pose looking at the Moon after Zhao is defeated. Pakku says that Katara is now a Waterbending Master now and that she will be the one to train Aang while Sokka has truly come into his own as the leader of the group.

The Tragedy of Princess Yue – Princess Yue saves her people, but ceases to be human in the process. In doing so she loses the man she loves for an event that was going to happen if Chief Amook’s dream is to be believed. This is her tragedy that in trying to find a way to break destiny, it was taken from her. She had no choice because no else had been touched by the Moon and could give the Moon life again. The Spirits aren’t very good at contingency plans. Her people live, Zhao’s defeated, but a young girl loses the life she could have lived and the man she loved (Sokka).

Fire Lord’s Command – The last scene we see related to the Fire Nation is the Fire Lord Ozai telling his daughter Azula that Iroh is a traitor and that Zuko has failed in his task leaving the unspoken task up to her. It has so much threat behind it and is a great set up of things to come.

   The theme of this episode is how imbalance consumes (Zhao loses everything in the end and is condemned to the Spirit World in the process as well as Zuko’s constant loss everytime he gets Aang) the other theme of sacrifice is strong too. It is Yue’s sacrifice that really saves the day as it establishes balance again and her people can protect themselves once more from threats like the Fire Nation. It’s great and the theme of balance that is so strong in this Universe really comes through, as well as the sign of the battle not being over yet with the Fire Lord’s ominous order.

Final Score: 10 / 10. Perfect episode.

Avatar: The Last Airbender – Season 1, Episode 16 – “The Deserter” – Fire’s Potential to Corrupt

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     We are getting closer to the Finale of Book 1, “Water.” You can tell because in this episode we learn about Zhao and his backstory, we learn more about the threat of the Fire Nation and Team Avatar nearly has a falling out due to the actions of Aang (no surprise there). Suffice to say, I really enjoyed this episode.

      “The Deserter” was directed by Lauren MacMullan and written by Tim Hedrick.

       The episode involves Aang’s search for a Firebending Master since he knows he must learn how to Firebend to fulfill his role as the Avatar. He searches at a Fire Nation Cultural Festival which leads to him being discovered and escaping with a Fire Nation soldier deserter who takes Aang to his Master Jeong Jeong who at first refuses to teach Aang until Roku comes to him in a vision. From here the story unfolds as Admiral Zhao hunts for the Avatar and Aang seeks to learn Firebending.

The Pros: Fire Nation Cultural Festival – This event was really cool and reminded me of Lunar New Years Festivals around the world. There were magicians, dragons and tons of people and food. It was a lot of fun for Team Avatar until they’re discovered too.

The Deserter – The soldier who deserted the Fire Nation is a pretty cool guy. He saves them without using Firebending and only tools. He’s also a pretty laid back guy and complete different in personality from Jeong Jeong his Master.

Katara – Katara learns she is a healer in this episode when Aang accidentally burns her when he is Firebending for the first time. It is after she heals herself and learns she has inborn healing abilities with Waterbending. Jeong Jeong comments on it being a rare gift and she shows him kindness. It is here we see connection between the two as he wishes he had her gift since he views Firebending as a curse.

Sokka – Sokka has a small but good role on this. When Katara runs off crying after Aang accidently burns her with his bending Sokka jumps him and is ready to go all out. It is here we see just how protective he is of his sister. It’s a small but good moment that offsets his use as hungry comedic relief at the beginning of the episode.

Jeong Jeong – I really like this guy. He is a FIrebending Master who sees Fire as a curse since it is the living element that consumes things and can easily consume a person or hurt others. We also learn he trained Zhao and Zhao was an example of his student who lost all control and only sought destruction, which most likely prompted his pacifism and involvement in the war. He tries to teach Aang patience and succeeds a little bit. He is all about technique, learn to control yourself and after you can control fire. He also only trains Aang when a vision of Roku forces him too. He’s a smart character and his conflicted nature makes him compelling. He knows the danger of his element extremely and it makes him compelling. His failure in training Zhao has taught him the full danger of his element.

Admiral Zhao – Zhao is shown to be a great threat in this episode, and also easy to take advantage of since he has such strong pride. Aang is the trickster once again in this and after Zhao’s arrival on the scene tricks  Zhao into burning his own ships since Zhao has no control. Zhao is shown to be smart enough to remember this though and his search for the Avatar and challenging Jeong Jeong are each successful in their own ways. He is a villain confident in his power.

Aang – We also see the guilt Aang carries and when he accidentally hurts Katara he swears off Firebending until she shows him she is okay and reminds him he’ll have too if he is going to be victorious. Aang’s shown to be smart as well when he tricks Zhao into burning his own ships and is good at mocking his enemies. He’s very much like Spider-man this episode and it’s fun to see him use Zhao’s power against him, which ties into the nature of Airbending which is avoidance.

   This was a fantastic episode and great episode that explores Team Avatar, Jeong Jeong and Zhao. Zhao is shown to be a great baddie and we get to learn more about the philosophy of Firebending and the inherent danger of corruption it can sometimes bring due to the nature of fire. It really makes you appreciate the calm of Iroh and warnings of Zuko since Zuko is more like Zhao in his bending where there isn’t control, just anger.

Final Score: 10 / 10.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Pilot – Book 1 “Water,” Episode 1 – “The Boy in the Iceberg” – Discovering the World

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We kick off our exploration of “The Avatar Universe,” with “Avatar: The Last Airbender” pilot, “The Boy in the Iceberg.” This episode really does get into serious issues by implication, which is part of what I love about this show. I’ll get into the particulars in the review, but genocide is in the title. Aang, is the Last Airbender, since all the rest have been killed off by the Fire Nation. You don’t to see kid’s shows explore issues like this, which brings a lot of depth to the story from the beginning.

I didn’t start watching this show until college, but when I did I never failed to be impressed. This is a major reason why I’m looking forward to reviewing the entire series, the comics and Korra and doing Character Profiles through this year of the different characters on the show, as there is so much to explore. This Universe is so rich with politics, philosophy, religion and characters that it would be a shame to not give it the full justice and exploration it deserves.

“The Boy in the Iceberg” was directed by Dave Filoni and written by ‎Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Peter Goldfinger, Josh Stolberg and Aaron Ehasz.

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The premise is that the Fire Nation has been conquering the world since the Avatar went missing 100 years ago. In current time Sokka and Katara are taking care of their tribe as their father and all the men have gone off to war to fight the Fire Nation. It is while they are hunting that they discover Aang, the Last Airbender, which attracts Prince Zuko to their people.

The Pros: The Premise – The premise is fascinating! You have a world where certain individuals can control the elements, and the Avatar who can control all four. You have the empire of the Fire Nation who has decimated populations like the Southern Water Tribe and committed genocide on the Air Nomads and is a real ongoing threat. We see how advanced Fire Nation technology is compared to the Water Tribe and the fact that Aang, the Last Airbender and Avatar is just a kid, shows just how in over his he and the other characters will be in facing down the Empire that has been conquering the world for 100 years. The idea of people bending elements based off of Martial Arts styles is really cool too…as we see in the introduction, it was through fire bending that the Fire Nation conquered the world.

Katara – Katara is calm except when she is disrespected, which Sokka does throughout the episode. It is his being disrespectful that leads to her water bending Aang out of his hibernation in the ice. From here she is the one who sees something special about Aang, but also has the self respect to confront her fears of the Fire Nation (when her and Aang explore a Fire Nation ship that was abandoned during one of the invasions of the Southern Water Tribe) and she is the one who updates Aang on all that has happened since he was gone.

Aang – Aang is the Natuto personality type. He’s high energy and likes to have fun and joke around…since the first thing he wants to do is go sledding using penguins. You can tell why he was in the ice as well since he is the Last Airbender. He ran and I don’t think he’s made peace with that. He also has not made peace with the fact he’s the Avatar, which makes sense…that’s a lot of responsibility for a kid and he doesn’t feel ready to face it.

Appa – Is a Flying Sky Bison. The Bison has a great design and is a pretty chill creature that cares deeply about people.

Zuko – Zuko is introduced as our antagonist, trying to win the honor of his family by capturing the Avatar, when none of his ancestors could. He has a cool scar and great character design. Also, great voice acting by Dante Basco. His character is impatient and wants to have honor again no matter what. He’s a small man, but intriguing because of it as he is no older than Katara and Sokka.

Iroh – Iroh is Zuko’s Uncle and is the rock that is ignored. When Zuko is getting all wound up it is Iroh who mentions he should sleep and tries to help him become a better Fire Bender by using the meditation and martial arts aspect of bending so that Zuko can find calm and balance. He isn’t successful sadly and is the wise sage along for the ride at this point. He also loves tea as the first scene he is in he is playing a game and offers Zuko some Jasmine Tea. The wonderful Mako Iwamatsu does his voice.

Okay: The Southern Water Tribe – We don’t really get to know them. They have Inuit garb and culture is implied, but we don’t get to know what those beliefs are. They only appear briefly in the first episode and are such a small tribe.

The Cons: Sokka – The guy is mean to Aang and Katara throughout the entire episode. He was pretty insufferable so I didn’t mind at all that he was the but of every joke and got tormented.

The pilot was a great way to start off the series! I had thought Zuko held the Southern Water Tribe hostage in this episode, but it looks like that is next episode as this episode is just Zuko confirming that Aang is with the Southern Water Tribe before he acts. This is godo as it gives us a chance to get to know the characters of Zuko, Iroh, Aang, Katara and Sokka. The characters have always been the strongest part of the story and in this case you really get a feel for how fleshed out the world is too.

Final Score: 9.2 / 10. Only reason it isn’t higher is because of how annoying Sokka is and how much more fleshed out I wish the Southern Water Tribe was.

The Avatar Universe – An Upcoming Exploration of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” “The Legend of Korra” and the Comics Inbetween

Avatars    I think it’s been long enough since “The Legend of Korra” ended that I feel comfortable exploring that Universe again and taking it as a whole. Growing up, I enjoyed watching “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” it was one of the first shows I saw that actually dealt with genocide (the Fire Nation’s destruction of the Air Nation), imperialism (the Fire Nation’s colonization of the world) and Eastern Philosophical ideas like Buddhism or Taoism (through Elemental Bending and the philosophy of Balance represented in the Avatar). This lead to it becoming one of my favorite shows and in my conversations with friends I would find myself discussing the character and ideas for hours.

   Eventually a sequel series was created, “The Legend of Korra.” I hated the first Book as I felt that Amon was wasted as an antagonist in him being made a hypocrite and I hated the love triangle between Bolin, Mako and Korra and Korra, Asami and Mako. It was trite and was the hardest part in Book 2, besides again the problem of the villain. Book 3 changed all that though and when I talk to most of my friends and recommend “Korra” I advise Book 3 over the other 4 and think it stands solidly on it’s own, not needing any prior introduction or later follow up. In my opinion at the time it was better than all of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

    After I finish up reviewing “The Legend of Korra” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender” I’ll give a rundown of how I would have done Korra, if I’d been required to do 4 books for that series, since I’ve been thinking about what I would have changed a lot (especially in regards to Amon, though I would change nothing about Zaheer overall, the guy is the best character in the Avatar Universe).

    There were a lot of people involved in this series, so as I do the individual episodes and start reviews the series I’m going to name them so they get the recognition they deserve. This is a rich universe, full of philosophy, martial arts, politics, nations and amazing characters that in my opinion will be timeless for years to come.

    So without further ado, I’ll be getting into the reviews soon, starting with “Avatar: the Last Airbender,” and ending with “Legend of Korra Finale.”