Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 4, Episode 3 – “Brothers” – The Legacies We Leave Behind

   “Brothers” is the best exploration of Soong and his creations that we get in “The Next Generation.” I wish we’d gotten more of this. This is one of the best episodes of “The Next Generation” and is an amazing story. Brent Spiner plays both Soong, Lore and Data in this episode and he gives quite the performance. I’ll get into more of what I mean later on but this is easily one of Spiner’s greatest performances.

The episode was written by Rick Berman and directed by Robert Bowman.

When Data takes control of the Enterprise, he takes them off course to a mysterious planet. The crew must get control back of the ship before one of the children under their care dies.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

Taking Back The Ship – The main storyline for the crew involve them taking back control of the ship after Data locks them all out. It is very well done as we see all the main crew involved. O’Brien gets to use the transporter to trick the ship thinking Data has returned and we see the crew working together to solve Data’s hacks of their system. I could watch an episode of the crew taking back the ship any day of the week. The crew has such a great dynamic and I love seeing them problem solve.

Stories of Brothers – This episode is a story of brothers. The episode starts with one brother scaring his brother leading him him getting poisoned and their arc of making peace with another. On the other side you have Lore arrive when Soong calls Data and the resentment Lore has towards Data as Data makes peace that he is not lesser than Lore. We see how complicated relationships between brothers are and it is handled really beautifully.

Lore – Lore is called back by accident and that stings him. Soong believed that Lore was dead so his thoughts were only ever on Data. Even with Lore present though he cannot fix Lore and this feeds Lore’s resentment of Data and their father Soong. This leads to him stealing the emotion chip meant for Data and killing Soong. Lore is shown to be capable of some level of care though as he empathizes with Data at one point and his desire to be fixed shows he knows that there are problems in the actions he has done.

Data – This is Data’s story as he returns to his creator to be given an emotion chip. Over the course of the episode we see Data naturally develop more human like traits. He calls Soong Father before he dies and asks to be alone with Soong. These are all things that he would not have done before and show that even without the emotion chip he is still developing in his humanity. We also see how Data outmatches the entire crew as he locks them off the bridge and the episode is solving the problems he put in place while being controlled by Soong. This is a plot point I wish had gotten more exploration later.

Soong and Legacy – Soong bring’s Data to him in order to fulfill his legacy as his creator. He creates an emotion chip that is meant for Data but the mistake of his legacy in Lore leads to him getting killed. He was chased out by the Colonists and Lore was always trying to hurt and kill others. Soong never takes responsibility for Lore’s actions and his relationship with Data is him wishing Data would be a scientist like him. In the end Lore and Data live on as he dies from his illness and Lore and we see the parts of Soong in his children. Lore has his disconnect from others and selfishness while Data has his inquisitive nature and desire to be more.

Okay:

Urgency of B-Plot – The need for the little brother to be healed and get to the starbase loses the sense of urgency once the crew has taken back the ship. I felt a line or two as to why this was would have strengthened the end of this plot.

Brent Spiner does a truly beautiful job playing all three characters and is really the main reason to see this episode. You learn more about Soong, Data and Lore and you also get to see the crew be competent and problem solve. I love how this story explores legacy and family through Soong’s relationship to his children and their choices and actions. This lends an emotional weight that makes the episode perfect.

Final Score: 10 / 10. An amazing exploration of family and legacy.

Shazam! (2019): A Beautiful Tale on What it Means to Have Family

New Shazam Poster Reminds You the Movie Is Fun | Collider

    “Shazam!” is easily the best film so far in the DC Cinematic Universe. I’m speaking as someone who thought “Wonder Woman” was great and enjoyed “Aquaman” and “Man of Steel.” This film is better than all of those and is the most fun I’ve had in a DC film since “The Dark Knight Rises.” I’m glad they got this win. “Shazam!” captures what makes super heroes and comics books so enjoyable and fun in the first place. This is a film that never stops being fun. For non-spoiler thoughts, it is worth seeing for that reason alone. This film is comedic, dark, adventurous and explores the concept of a family better than so many films that say that is their theme. Not only that, the film looks great and has a fantastic soundtrack.

The film was directed by David F. Sandberg with screenplay by Henry Gayden and produced by Peter Safran.

The story follows foster boy Billy Batson as he is given to the last foster family who will give him a chance, as he has ran away from all those prior. Left with the choice as he searches for his missing mother other threats are plot and act as Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) is empowered by an evil and only the wizard Shazam can empower someone pure of heart who can stop him in his quest of destruction.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – Finally the DCCU works. This film calls upon classic “Shazam!” villains who were part of his universe before Faucet Comics were bought out by DC and when he was Captain Marvel. The villain is Dr. Sivana who is a classic foe who DC brought into their universe. As someone who loves the rich lore of comics this was a movie that hit me on so many levels. There is more related to the lore that I’ll get into later in the review, but this is a world that doesn’t need the rest of the DC universe to be good but enriches it by existing.

The Action and Cinematography – The action is visceral, colorful and feels like it has been pulled from the pages of a comic. It isn’t the same beautiful the way “Spider-Verse” did it with it’s animation (blending anime, modern, noir, etc.) but it does it using the dark and light in the character’s abilities and where they choose to shoot the fights. For example, the final fight takes place in a carnival. This use of the dark and light contrast makes the fight sequences stand out and when they happen (because when they happen they matter) it adds to the narrative and is a brilliant use of storytelling.

The Characters – The characters and their relationships are what makes this movie work in this end. I would have rated this movie as at least very good if all I had to go on where performances and the character relationships, and this film delivers on those in spades. The relationships are a big reason I want to go back as I think I’ll notice more in the rewatch as far as how the characters see one another and what that means in the finale.

Billy Batson – Billy Batson / Shazam / Captain Marvel is the main character, who as the foster kid is seeking his mother. He is a kid who only looks out for himself and tells his foster family as much. He does grow more attached to them over the course of the film, which is part of his essential arc. When he becomes the Champion empowered by Wizard we see Billy’s arc go from selfish kid seeking his mother to hero who has found his true family. Both Zachary Levi as Shazam and Asher Angel as Billy give so much depth to the role.

Freddy – Freddy is one of Billy’s foster siblings and the closest thing he has to a friend. He’s also a huge comic book nerd and becomes Billy’s mentor on how to become a hero when he becomes the Champion / Shazam. At first they are both really selfish but Freddy figures out the bigger picture first and calls out Billy for how he has become a selfish bully with his abilities. Freddy does have his arc payoff though, but I’m not revealing what that is, since it is one of the best parts of the film.

Shazam Family – Billy’s adopted family becomes the Shazam Family at the end to fight the Seven Deadly Sins and it is awesome! Each of them is a hero as strong as Billy and together they face off against the Sins. How it happens is fascinating too as it Billy realizing that he needs to open his heart to find his true power and it is in sharing power, not taking it (like Dr. Sivana) where true power lies. Each of the family members has distinct personalities contrasted by their grown up identity and I can’t wait to see them further. I won’t describe more as the seeing their story payoff is one of the best parts of the film.

Dr. Sivana – Dr. Sivana was one of the people chosen by the wizard a long time ago to be the hero but failed because of the temptations from the Demons who are the Seven Deadly Sins. From that point on he seeks out the Sins and frees them before seeking out the hero who he envies for having the great power that is only capable of defeating him. We see why he is this way too as he comes from an abusive family and power was the only thing his dad and brother ever respected. What innocence and pure of heart that he needed to be the Champion was stamped out a long time ago.

Mr. Mind – This is a classic villain for the Fawcett comics who DC brought back when they revamped the character. He is this caterpillar looking worm who is a genius. He meets up with Dr. Sivana in prison and tells him there are more ways to power than simply magic. It is a great set-up for future films as Mr. Mind is a villain unlike anything we’ve seen so far in Marvel or DC.

Okay:

The Foster Parents – The Foster Parents are kind but kind of generic. We get glimpses of their past but never in relation to their kids, only in relation to one another. They both grew up in the Foster system so I’m not saying it is a negative but them opening up to any of their foster kids about their past would have added a layer of depth the story wasn’t able to do. Not entirely a con but definitely the weakest part of the film.

This is a great film. Shazam is such a fun hero and I can’t wait to see how Mr. Mind and Shazam and his foster family are used in later films. In both there is so much potential there to be explored. This was also a film that doesn’t need an expanded universe to work. Billy’s relationship to his foster family and his biological mother give this film more than enough heart to make this film wholly great on it’s own merits. If you are looking for a film that has a deeper point while still managing to be a hilarious comedy, you will probably love this film as much as I did. It is definitely one of my favorite films.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

Coco (2017): An Amazing Pixar Epic That Explores Family and Love

     Pixar has done it again. “Coco” is easily the best film their studio has put out since “Inside Out” and is definitely in my  Top 5 films made by the studio. This is film full of beautiful creativity, action that matters, a powerful message and enthralling characters. For my non-spoiler thoughts, this is Pixar and it isn’t a sequel, go and see it. Hopefully “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” will have been taken out before you see it too, I’m doing that as a separate review but it was the worst part of the viewing experience.

The film was directed by Lee Unkrich, written by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich and produced by Darla K. Anderson.

The story follows Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) a young boy who wants to be a musician but whose family has abandoned music after their ancestor left his wife long ago and never returned to become a musician. From here he finds himself pulled into the Land of the Dead as he seeks his ancestors blessing in order to return to the Land of the Living before he a curse he brought about sets in on himself and his family.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Animation – This is easily one of the best looking Pixar film since “Inside Out.” Like “Inside Out” it is colorful and full of contrasts and our characters are each distinct both in look and the voices portraying them. This is also Pixar, so great animation isn’t too much of a surprise, it just really stood out in this film.

The Family and Their Dynamics – The main drama that drives the story is Miguel’s relationship to his family and the relationship between his last known living ancestors. The story starts out with Miguel wanting to be a musician and believing the famous celebrity who died named Ernesto de la Cruz is his ancestor because of the picture on his mantel and the fact that he was from his village. His family does all they can to keep from music (his grandmother even breaks his guitar), leading him to go the Land of the Dead where he seeks de la Cruz’s blessing (as his ancestor Imelda will not give it). The story unfolds from here as the ancestors try to get him back to send him home so they won’t be cursed and as the story unfolds we learn more about Imelda’s relationship to music and her missing husband as the family comes together over the course of the film.

The Land of the Dead – The Land of the Dead is wonderfully done. It is a mixture of eras and technology and they even have a travel system on Day of the Dead where your face is checked to see if someone has put your picture up in the Land of the Living. It is all creatively done and built on popularity (with Ernesto de la Cruz being the star). I wanted to see more of this place as we get to see the entrance and the city but also the underbelly where Hector lives where those who are forgotten live before they pass away forever.

Hector and Imelda – These two were my favorite characters and their drama is the core of the story as Hector went off to be a musician and was killed by Ernesto when he tried to return home. Because Imelda was living on her own supporting Coco she started her family’s obsession with shoes as that was how they built a livelihood. Their arc is coming together again and taking down de la Cruz as Imelda discovers her love of singing again and Hector becomes part of the family once more as they are both reunited with Coco a year later after she dies.

The Coco Scenes – Coco is an ancient old woman and Miguel’s Great Grandmother. For much of the film she doesn’t interact at all, except for calling out her father’s name. It is this way until the end when Miguel returns and plays her song, “Remember Me,” that Hector used to sing to her before he would travel and do concerts. We learn she held onto his songs and a portion of the photograph her mother had torn and through remembering Hector he is remembered and doesn’t die in the Land of the Dead, with Coco joining her parents a year later. It is powerful and I teared up when Miguel sings her the song that Hector always had.

Okay: Ernesto de la Cruz – Benjamin Bratt voices a great villain as Cruz is one who only cares about seizing the moment and holding onto his station in life. He killed Hector and nearly kills Miguel, all to keep his power. I wish he’d been more complex, but as a villain you think might be a good guy at first, he was fun, so not a con.

Entering the Land of the Dead – Miguel enters the Land of the Dead when he plays his father’s guitar. There isn’t a reason given minus the border between worlds being thin, so I wish we had been told more. It wasn’t bad but it just kind of happens and he becomes a ghost.

This is a film that might have you tearing up by the end, as it did me. Films like this are why Pixar is so loved and I can’t wait to see what they do next. I’ll be buying this film when it comes out and it is easily one of my favorites of the year, even if it may not make the Top 5. The main story is solid, the emotional core is strong and the world is amazing. The only things they could have improved on were the villain and how Miguel entered the Land of the Dead.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

Sherlock – Series 4, Episode 2 – “The Lying Detective” – Character Development and Confession…This was Needed and Succeeded

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“The Lying Detective” is up there with one of my favorite episodes in “Sherlock.” This is an episode that captures the best parts of what made so much of Series 2 work. What drives this story is the core relationship between John and Sherlock, especially as it relates to family aka Mycroft and Mary. This gives it power as there is an underpinning of vulnerability that pervades the entire episode.

The episode was directed by Nick Hurran and written by Steven Moffat and produced by Sue Vertue.

The story involves Sherlock regressing back into addiction as he seeks to take down a man he suspects of being a serial killer (Culverton Smith). John hasn’t seen him for weeks but finds himself pulled back into Sherlock’s game as the plot to take down Culverton unfolds.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Set-up – The episode starts out with Culverton confessing to his friends he’s a killer and wiping their memories of the incident. Immediately he is established as a powerful antagonist and we get Sherlock’s obsession with him.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is once again beautiful, it continues to be one of the strongest aspects of this show.

The Action – This is an action heavy episode and the tension stays high through everything. I honestly didn’t know what would happen at times and that made the narrative stronger.

The Soundtrack – David Arnold and Michael Price’s score is really on display this episode as we get the haunting terror of Culverton the drug fueled isolation of Sherlock and John’s loneliness. The music feeds the narrative and strengthens it.

The Characters – The characters have always been the best part of the show and thankfully Moffat manages to develop many of them this episode, rather than keeping them static.

Molly – Molly appears briefly and does a good job at balancing out John as she is the second Doctor who John requests before he’ll help Sherlock take down Culverton.

Culverton Smith – Toby Jones is so good at playing creeps. In this we see his obsession and safety in being a billionaire and tied to politicians and businesses. It takes Sherlock entering Hell for him to confess what he’s done though when he is caught he shows that he’s been holding all this in and still feels happy as he’ll be even more famous once him being a killer comes out. He’s a sick individual and it makes for an interesting character.

Mrs. Hudson – Mrs. Hudson helps bring John and Sherlock together as we see she has a nice car (her drug lord husband) and that she doesn’t take crap from anyone. This is a great Mrs. Hudson episode as we see how she notices things and knows Sherlock and Mycroft better than anyone. It was a nice twist and it added a lot of depth to her character.

Mycroft – Mycroft is a lizard for most of this episode when he isn’t looking after Sherlock and trying to be a good brother. We also see that he’s trying to protect his sister, which John first figures out in the episode. There is more to this reveal than anyone knows though as shown by the final reveal.

Sherlock – Sherlock goes into Hell to take down a killer and to seek out John again as we see that he really does act from emotion and isn’t detached from it. This instability is explored deeply in the episode as we see him question reality even as he is getting more connected to other aspects of reality. It’s tragic in many ways and I felt for him when he finally starts dealing with his addiction and John forgives him. Sherlock finally shows affection which we see he’s always wanted to some degree (whether from Irene or John).

John Watson – John is dealing with loss this episode as he sees Mary in his mind’s eye and talks to her. He is dealing with anger, denial and sadness and also shame and regret for the affair he had. After he confesses this to Sherlock mind Mary leaves and we see him begin to heal as it is also only from him arriving that he saves Sherlock from Culverton (a callback to the first episode of the series when he stops another killer).

Eurus – Eurus is the other Holmes and has embraced the mind fully as we see her as John’s therapist at the episode’s start. We don’t know her motivations yet but she helped take down Culverton and at the end of the episode is about to shoot John. There are Moriarity aspects to her and I really want to know her more as she is a villain with a lot of potential.

The Reveal – Eurus is Mycroft and Sherlock’s sister! This was cool as she’s John’s therapist and we see that she was playing everyone. We don’t know her motivation yet but the hints that she might not be all together there and Mycroft’s fear of her leave a lot to hope for. Moffat writing her helps mellow out the hype though. He’s set up a lot of badass female antagonists and failed to have them payoff.

Confession and Healing – A core part of this episode is confession and healing. Culverton’s confession to his friends is what leads to his demise as it gives Sherlock what he needs to take him down, John and Sherlock confessing to one another leads to healing with them both feeling the loss of Mary and helps reestablish their friendship and gives us the heart and theme of the episode.

Okay/Con: Everybody is Getting Together – Lady Smallwood gets together with Mycroft and it implies it could be serious someday, John wants Sherlock to get together with Irene when he learns that she texts him. This is cute in some ways but having everyone hook up had romantic comedy aspects to it that took me out of the episode.

The Cons: Pacing – There are some pacing issues, it starts out strong has great rising action but sort of teeters off when John sees the confession tape from Mary and when Eurus reveals herself to John to shoot him. If this had been a bit smoother the episode could have been perfect.

This was Moffat once again at the head of his game. Every major character gets development and Sherlock’s psychology is explored and isn’t justified. This is a story that wants to explore the darker parts of human nature and what humans are capable of, and it succeeds. It isn’t a perfect episode as the romances that get set-up through the episode feel a little off sometimes and it does have pacing issues, but that doesn’t take away from the core power of the narrative and character development that takes place. This was such a great episode that really captured the core relationships and mystery, which made this show so great in the first place.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10

Finding Dory (2016): A Brilliant Exploration of What it Means to be Dory

Finding Dory Poster

    For sequels that didn’t need to be made, this is a really good sequel. Pixar is one of those studios I’ve come to expect quality from and they continue this here as this is a film that will pull on your heart strings and gives our characters complete arcs and a fantastic adventure for it all to take place in. My non-spoiler thoughts are basically that you should see this film. It is no “Inside Out” or the untouchable Pixars but is is really good and is well worth your time.

   The film was directed by Andrew Stanton who also wrote the story and screenplay with Victoria Strouse also writing the screenplay with him. The producer was Lindsey Collins.

   The story involves Dory’s (Ellen DeGeneres) search for her parents when a memory is triggered that she lost them a long time ago and that they are at the Jewel of Morro Bay, California. This leads to her Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) traversing there to help her remember why she is searching and to find them again.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The World of “Finding Dory” is an amazing one! Whether it is in the reef or the Marine Life Institute Pixar’s diverse assortment of characters creates a rich world where the relationships only make it greater.

The Soundtrack – Thomas Newman once again creates gold! I have yet to be disappointed by his work and here he does a good job of capturing Dory’s terror of being lost and her joy of being reunited once again with her family.

The Animation – It’s Pixar, their animation has only gotten better with time. You can see the details on the fish, from their expressions to their scales…Pixar continues to create animation that looks so alive.

The Opening Scene – The opening scene is touching and sad as we see that Dory getting lost is what lead to her forgetting what she was looking for (her parents) that lead to her finding Marlin in the first place. Her parents help her with memory games and we see where she gets her songs and sayings from…they were to help her remember to find her way home.

Dory’s Memories – Dory’s memories are some of the strongest moments as we see her connection to characters and what they mean in those flashbacks, even if Dory doesn’t get their meaning fully…we do.

The Characters – Pixar has always been very character driven in it’s productions and this film is no different. The characters are what make this film besides the action, score and animation…and we get many more amazing characters.

Fluke and Rudder – These Sea Lions played by Idris Elba (Fluke) and Dominic West (Rudder) are hilarious and sadly also a bit of bullies. They help Marlin and Nemo get into the Marine Institute but they are also always picking on Gerald, who isn’t all there. They provide great comedic relief though as they are the one who call the birds to pick up Nemo and Marlin and witness the journey and escape at the end.

Destiny and Bailey – Destiny is a Whale Shark and Bailey is a Beluga Whale. Destiny was Pipe Pals with Dory when they were kids and is near sided so is always crashing into the tank. Bailey believes he can’t use his sonar…their arcs are coming to count on one another and have great chemistry with one another and Dory. Destiny was played by Kaitlin Olson and Bailey by Ty Burrell…both were fantastic.

Hank – Ed O’Neil plays my favorite character in the film. He is a red octopus who was traumatized by his experience in the sea so just wants to live out his life safe in a tank. It takes his adventure with Dory to realize he does care about people and to soften him up. He becomes part of her family by the end. His dark humor is great with Dory’s idealism and I’m glad we get to spend so much time with him.

Marlin and Nemo – The classics are back from the first one and much of their journey is finding Dory while Marlin learns to both respect Dory and her disability and also to let Dory be free in herself…an arc her parents also have to go through. I’m glad we didn’t spend as much time with these two as their arcs were largely in the first film.

Jenny and Charlie – These two are Dory’s parents and their arc is learning to trust their daughter and let her be herself and make her own choices. This understandably hard as they’d been waiting for her for years outside the Institute after she got lost…but she demonstrates that they raised her well and that she may not remember always but she knows how to survive, plan and to help others.

Dory – Dory is the main character of this film and her relationships are what define the film as we see her help her parents, Hank and Martin grow to accept her fully just as she learns fully to accept herself and her own power. As someone who found this for myself living with aspergers this is huge. Dory’s story is one of empowerment and shows that no matter how hard things get, going forward you can change your circumstances and find those who accept and love you.

Living With a Disability – A huge theme of the film is what it is like to live with a disability. As one who grew up with Aspergers I can relate to this, you face challenges were early on you do need help on and there are some things that never go away…even as you find ways to face those challenges and to grow from them to the point where you can be successful and stand on your own and from it live with the dignity everyone deserves.

Disabilities and Dignity – Dignity is a huge theme of the film as it is when Dory is shut down and hurt that she really goes off and gets lost…it is when the support is there that it is easier to face her memory loss and it is from dignity that she finds self respect and respect from her friends and family.

Okay: The Marine Life Institute – I think this was meant to be shown as positive sine the animals are all to be released into the wild (except those that are too sick) but it is still an antagonist I guess? The Marine Life Institute and their role in the film is ill-defined and more could have been done to explore the different animals’ relationships to it.

Cons: Drags in Places – There are some action sequences that go on a bit too long, especially at the end where Dory panics…the scene could have been shorter and still had the same impact with her finding her parents, same goes for the escape at the end. Some scenes just go on too long. If more had been cut I’d have easily given this a 9.

The Treatment of Gerald Versus the Theme – Gerald is a Sea Lion that also appears to have a mental disability but it is largely played for laughs. This struck me as off as the whole point of the film is accept people with all their quirks and that all deserve dignity. I don’t think Gerald ever got that from others.

   This was a really good Pixar film and one I’d highly recommend. It is bound to make you tear up at least once as Dory’s story is one that many people are no doubt familiar with. Dory gives a human face to what it is like to live with disability and the film is wonderful at respecting her dignity and personhood as we see just how great her family is by the end of the film. The only contradiction to this is the treatment of Gerald who is bullied and looks like he is also facing some sort of mental handicap. Gerald deserved respect just like Dory. Outside of this problem and some pacing issues this was a really good film. If you are fan of Pixar or animation you won’t be disappointed.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10

Sword Art Online – Episodes 11-12 – “The Yui Arc” – A.I. Worth Fighting For

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  “The Yui Arc” is really good and shows just how messed up the creator of the game Kayaba is. In this we see one of the most sympathetic A.I.’s who is a game changer while still managing to keep stakes in the game. She changes Kirito and Asuna in ways they don’t expect and she is one of my favorite characters on this show.

    The episodes in the arc are “”The Girl of the Morning Dew” and “Yui’s Heart.”

     The story involves Asuna and Kirito getting married and living a life of peace out in the wilderness until they discover Yui. A young girl who doesn’t remember who she is but adopts them as her mother and father. Her nature is revealed when they return to the “Town of Beginnings” and are forever changed from it.

The Pros: The Family – Yui, Kirito and Asuna make a great family! There is a contrast between them all with Yui developing tastes similar to Kirito but being more attached to Asuna. Even when Yui discovers what she actually is their love for one another doesn’t change and more than anything what she wants is to be with them. It’s a powerful relationship they have.

The Cabin in the Forest – The Cabin in the Forest is Asuna and Kirito’s escape where you get to see them truly make a life together. It is wonderful as they are teenagers in love and sometimes they clash but the core love they have for another doesn’t change as they end up experiencing great loss and joy.

Yui – Yui is the mysterious girl who ends up being the A.I. in charge of looking after players well beings. Kayaba locked her out of the game and she watched everyone suffer from being trapped in it. Eventually Asuna and Kirito’s relationship lead to her seeking them out as they were building a life in the game. In the end she sacrifices herself to save them and the leader of the Army who got trapped in a dungeon by Kibaou. This leads to the GM trying to destroy her program, though Kirito manages to hack and turn her into an item, saving some part of her for he and Asuna to bring back.

Asuna – Asuna is shown to be really motherly in this as it is her drive that leads to them trying to find Yui’s parents. It is also her decision to go on the rescue mission to save the leader of the Army guild. She feels everything strongly and when they lose Yui it nearly breaks her though she finds solace with Yui’s heart and makes it a necklace, swearing to use it bring her back later.

Kirito – Kirito is the cautious one in this and a bit of a troll to Asuna (telling ghost stories) but at the core a good guy. He does all the missions Asuna does and honors the fact that they fight together. They are a team and as a loner player afraid of losing people this takes a while for to accept. It is how he grows and we see that he wants to be with Asuna in the real word, even though he has trouble accepting it.

The Ending – Yui risks her power and is deleted after she saves Asuna, Kirito and the good members of the Army from a really powerful boss. It is great seeing her story from her point of view and that in the end she just wants the joy of being the child of Kirito and Asuna. It makes her death all the sadder.

 This is one of my favorite arcs in the show as it ties everything back to the beginning and we see how the game is bigger than it appears to be. Yui is one of the most human characters and she is an A.I. Asuna and Kirito also live a real young love relationship and they question and grow as they go through the story. This arc is a joy to watch and the best in the series so far. I highly recommend it.

Final Score: 10 / 10

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Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Season 2, Episodes 9-10 – “The Hunt for Grievous Arc” – Grievous Just Isn’t a Good Enemy and Great Clone Development

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    Every time the writers give Grievous a chance to be a great threat, they ruin it if there is any more than a single episode. In this we see him capture a Jedi Master and proceed to nearly be captured following this, as well as not know how to command or use his men well. Why do they keep using this guy as an enemy? He brings down almost every episode he’s in from his failure to be a lasting threat that can be taken seriously? “Star Wars: Clone Wars” is the only time I can think where he truly felt like the threat he is implied to be in this show and Episode III. Suffice to say, was not impressed with his plan this episode and the fallout from it in the following episode.

    “Grievous Intrigue” was directed by Giancarlo Volpe and written by Bob Edlund, Drew Z. Greenberg and Brian Larsen and “The Deserter” was directed by Robert Dalva and written by Carl Ellsworth, Drew Z. Greenberg and Brian Larsen.

     The story involves Grievous’s capture of Jedi Master Koth and him being used as bate to lure Anakin and Obi-Wan into a trap to be destroyed. Unsurprisingly the trap fails and Grievous must make his escape down to the planet to call for help from the Separatist fleet. During this time Captain Rex is injured and must deal with his loyalties as the man and his family who care for him is a Clone deserter from the Republic army.

The Pros: Clone Identity and “The Deserter” – Clone Identity is explored in this as the deserter watched all his brothers get killed and panicked and ran away but fell in love and has a family who he loves and protects. Rex’s family are his Clone Brothers and we see him respect Cut for not being a coward, though still looking down on his desertion. They have a great talk and explore how Clones are programmed to fight for the Republic and conditioned too but that they are still individuals with fears and dreams and that can lead to many possibilities beyond simply being a soldier in a war that looks like it is never going to end. I really like Rex and Cut as characters and they had a great dynamic together. “The Deserter” would get 9 / 10, due to this.

Obi-Wan – Obi-Wan has a personal beef with Grievous and we see him hold his own and even nearly kill Grievous at one point. At this point it is personal and we see that blind Obi-Wan to some of the traps Grievous sets and to the life of his men who are far more likely to be killed by Grievous than him.

Okay: The Other Jedi – Anakin, Koth and Adi are just kind of there. They moments of wit but none of it really stands out as the focus is mostly on Obi-Wan and his vendetta against Grievous. I guess they almost die a few times but we don’t learn anything about them. Adi and Koth could have been traded out for any other Jedi Master we’ve met once or twice and it wouldn’t have changed a thing.

The Cons: Grievous and his Army – Grievous sucks, he sets up this master plan and in the end his ship just gets destroyed and he runs away when he has multiple vessels and could have won the battle above. He put himself needlessly at risk leaving his ship and not jumping to another cruiser and he kills so many of his own men he’s a plus to the Jedi in battle. I didn’t get his personal vendetta against the Jedi either. What had they done to him prior to him becoming a general in the Clone Wars? That is never answered so it just feels contrived. Worst antagonist on this show…

Final Score: 7 / 10.

Avatar: The Last Airbender – Book 2 “Earth,” Episode 8 – “The Chase” – Internal Fighting and Coming Together

The Chase

     “The Chase” is an episode that when it works it is amazing, but when it has problems, it is really obvious. The episode gives us foreshadowing as well as character development and we get to see just how much of a threat Azula and her Trio really are. Suffice to say I enjoyed this episode, though I wouldn’t call it a favorite. “Zuko Alone” was a far superior episode.

     The episode was directed by Giancarlo Volpe and written by Joshua Hamilton.

    The story involves Team Avatar running from Trio as they are being tracked from Appa’s fur being shed from the spring. Because the Trio is always on their tale they are unable to get any sleep and begin clashing and fighting among themselves, leading to Toph leaving as the Trio closes in.

The Pros: The Trio – The Trio are amazing in this! We see them drive a metal tank, giant lizards and Ty Lee easily takes out Sokka while Mai neutralizes Katara’s Waterbending. Azula also nearly beats Aang and it’s only when she’s taking on the current and future members of Team Avatar that she runs but not before injuring Iroh.

Zuko – Zuko is lost and conflicted and we see him flailing still to live by the old honor of before as he tries once again to capture Aang so his sister Azula won’t get the glory and so that he can redeem himself. Given Azula is trying to kill him too he eventually joins Team Avatar in the fight against her, especially when he watches Iroh fighting with Team Avatar. In the end he is broken though as Azula injures Iroh and he rejects Team Avatar’s help to heal him.

Iroh – Iroh counsels Toph on appreciating the love other’s show you, and she in turn tells him he should tell his nephew the same thing. It’s a great moment and he laughs when Toph mentions that “Isn’t he a bit old to travel alone?” When he says isn’t she too young to be alone. They have a great conversation and his coming together to rescue Zuko from Azula at the end is powerful, made all the more so when Azula lands a direct hit on his chest, leaving him injured.

Toph – Toph is the loner and does her own thing for most of this episode, we see that she sees Team Avatar like her family and she is afraid to be a part of them or open with them because she doesn’t want to get hurt again or rejected. It is Iroh who is able to bring her around though and mentions that some people help because they want too, not because of the person you are. It’s for them, not for you. Which was just what she needed to hear as she joins them for the battle against Azula.

Aang – Aang has his hero moment when he leaves a fur trail that Azula follows and they have a standoff in the village. At one point he is fighting both Azula and Zuko (a precursor of things to come) and it is only through all the elements working together (Zuko and Iroh, Katara, Toph and Aang) that the evil within the Fire Nation (Azula) is defeated, but loss still occurs as she injures Iroh. Aang being aware of others is huge in this as even though Zuko had been trying to kill him, he still won’t turn on him. This is a great analogy for the overall arc of the series as people will be lost and injured from the war and it will take all the Elements coming together to defeat Ozai and Azula.

The Message – Tell people you appreciate them and care about them, because they can’t read your mind and all of us have our insecurities. I really liked the message this episode especially through the perspectives of Toph and Zuko.

Okay: Katara and Sokka – These two are just kind of there. Sokka is there to make jokes based on how tired he is and Katara is there trying to get Toph to help out. She never changes from this though and I found myself more sympathetic to Toph as Katara could get pretty passive aggressive and it was only when she was super tired that she actually addressed Toph not being a part of the team directly.

    I really enjoyed the foreshadowing this episode, couldn’t stand the infighting as it made Katara and Sokka seem much younger than they actually were..and it was a repeat of past fights almost in some ways too. For this reason I wish more focus had been on Iroh and Zuko and that Toph had left earlier to figure things out. The first part of the episode was hard to watch at times because the infighting among Team Avatar was written so terribly. Still, great final battle and you can’t go wrong with Iroh.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10

“Better Call Saul” Season 1 Assessment – A Matter of Self Respect, Family and Life’s Shades of Grey

better-call-saul

      “Better Call Saul” kicks off the show strong and shows once again that Vince Gillian and  Peter Gould know what they’re doing. This was a show that I was a little worried about going in, especially when there was early talk about it being a comedy. Gillian can do comedy well but he is so much better at drama and tackling the shades of grey or moral decisions and choices. This is a huge part of why “Breaking Bad” is one of my favorite shows, besides how well the character arcs are handled and the beautiful writing and cinematography…all of which “Better Call Saul” has, though it is much more focused in it’s narrative than “Breaking Bad” was.

      Before I go into more detail, this review does contain SPOILERS for both “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” since for me they shows inform each other, and not just because “Better Call Saul” is a prequel spin-off. There are some of the same characters and we get their backstories and also very similar themes too, though they are handled differently than the Fall of Walter White as Jim McGill (Saul before he was Saul Goodman) is a very different person. Also, as a side note I will eventually be reviewing “Breaking Bad” in full here on the blog.

    The story is that of James “Jimmy” McGill (played by Bob Odenkirk) and begins after “Breaking Bad” where he now works at a Cinnebun and has a whole new persona and identity. He is sad and you see him watching his old “Saul Goodman” commercials before we get a flashback to before to 6 years before “Breaking Bad” began. It is here Jimmy is a small town lawyer and ex-con artist who is trying to make his way in the world while dealing with the shame of his brother Chuck (Michael McKean)who is paranoid and successful, his brother’s firm “Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill” where his friend Kim works and where he wants to be a part of, as he worked in the Mail Room when he left the scam artist track and now cares about law. From here things unfold as secrets are revealed and Jimmy must choose what type of lawyer and man he wants to be.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is once again beautiful. The wasteland of the desert and isolation of the characters (especially Jimmy) is presented really well. I’d expect nothing less from the creators of “Breaking Bad” though. “Breaking Bad” always looked great and cinematography was used to present the themes of falling and brokenness really well, which “Better Call Saul” does in it’s own way too. Whether it’s Chuck’s fear when he goes outside and making the camera be from his point of view where everything is loud and bright or everything is in darkness, which is how Season 1 was filmed.

The Soundtrack – The country western theme is worked into it really well but there are also some great instrumentals too. The use of “Smoke on the Water” at the end of the series was great as well to show the choice that Jimmy makes. Dave Porter did a fantastic job.

The Writing – The dialogue is witty (again Gillian so wouldn’t expect any less) and there are great back and forths with anyone who Jimmy interacts with. Be it the nail salon owner, Kim, Chuck or his Old Testament like speeches to the law firm “Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill.” The script is also subtle too. When Churck admits that he’s ashamed of Jimmy and thinks he’ll always be a con, Jimmy silently leaves. It’s a powerful scene and the most you see is that he’s about to cry, but never fully does. It’s beautifully done and we see quite a few scenes like this where no dialogue needed because it was written and directed so well.

The Characters – The characters are all 3-Dimensional, with the exception of the gangsters who we haven’t really got to know. But the people at the law firm, the friends of Jimmy…none of them are simple. There are conflicts in the choices they make and it defines them in really interesting ways.

Mike Ehrmantraut – Mike is back from “Breaking Bad” and we get his backstory in this. In this we see that he’s a cop killer who killed the cops who were going to kill him and who had killed his son because after he’d convince his son to be corrupt his son had questioned, and that was enough for the cops to end hi. This leads to an investigation and he tells his Daughter-in-Law about what happens, as well as getting help from Jimmy against the Philadelphia detectives. In the end we see more of his road to Gus as he takes jobs as a bodyguard for people trying to stay under the radar and uses the money he has to care for his Grandkids. He’s a great character and has the defining quote of the series:

“I’ve known good criminals and bad cops, bad priests, honorable thieves. You can be on one side of the law or the other, but if you make a deal with somebody, you keep your word. You can go home today with your money and never do this again, but you took something that wasn’t yours and you sold it for a profit. You are now a criminal. Good one, bad one, that’s up to you.”

   Jonathan Banks continues to bring such depth to this complicated character.

Kim Wexler – Jimmy’s friend in the law firm and the person who he helps and who helps him a lot as he is getting on his feet as a lawyer. They’ve known each other a long time and she’s always celebrated his successes. Her choice is that between ambition (the partner track on the firm) and working directly with people the way Jimmy does. She chooses the partner track, at least for now and she wants to work with Jimmy as equals and has since he passed the bar. Rhea Seehorn is great in this role. She is Jimmy’s moral compass a lot of the time.

Chuck McGill – Jimmy’s paranoid brother who is a “Do it yourself” conservative type who looks down on those he sees as lazy, while not fully accepting that he is living on handouts from Jimmy and the company because of his paranoia of light and electricity. His character is tragic in this way as we see him working directly with Jimmy on a few cases, but we soon learn it was all for his own end as after he got Jimmy out of jail he never saw Jimmy as anything other than a crook. He’s a powerful character and much of what Jimmy does is a reaction to him or his firm. His character’s change is getting used to light again, or trying too, before retreating back indoors right around the time that he admits he is ashamed that Jimmy is a lawyer and doesn’t believe is a real lawyer at all. Michael McKean does a wonderful job in the role.

Jimmy McGill – Bob Odenkirk owns this role. Jimmy is complicated. He starts out as the man who loves the joy of the con and wants easy and fast money but soon finds himself becoming a hard worker as he’s trying to make his own success and join his brother’s law firm on his own terms. He makes a lot of tough choices but is shown to have a good moral core as returns the stolen money that he was bribed with by clients and he saves the life of two other cons from Tuco at one point too. He has an awareness of others which makes a good lawyer and con artist. So much of his motivation initially is to do the right thing, impress his brother and become a lawyer in his brother’s firm. It is after he realizes it was never option and his con friend dies during their lost con together that he decides he will make his own path and get money whenever it’s offered after he rejected the chance for wealth tied to firm connected to his brother’s firm. His character is conflict over every decision he makes as he knows easy ways and how to connect with people but continues to be screwed by those closest to him making him resent the ones who have shaped him into the good person he was. What type of crook he will be remains to be seen but Mike’s quote applies to Jimmy big time.

Themes – Isolation (the McGills), betrayal (Jimmy on a few occasions as a con and when he does the right thing with the money, as well as Mike’s backstory), darkness and and light (extremes) and ambition (the McGills and Kim). Were the major ones I noticed.

The Message – The message is in Mike’s quote. You can be a good person whether you are a criminal or with the law, the important thing is will you choose to be? In the end Jimmy is shown to have a greater moral character than Chuck who could not forgive and looked down upon the person who was doing the most for him. This leads to Chuck being further isolated, just like when Jimmy lashes out he gets isolated from his friends too. There is also the warning that easy paths have greater trials later. The issue surrounding the stolen money leads to an episode arc where they have to steal the money from the family to force them to take the deal with Kim’s firm which will save more of them rather than them (The Family and Jimmy) going to jail. This happens a few other times too. The fast money of the underworld can lead to great rewards but very large falls which I think is something Jimmy may have forgotten at the end because he is reacting so strongly to his brother’s betrayal. These themes of goodness not defined by role and the danger of the fast track were the major messages of Season 1.

Okay: Nacho Varga – A criminal who works with Tuco but is trying to go his own way. We see this when he saves Jimmy’s life and wants the money from the family Jimmy was trying to con and we later see him keep his deal when the client Mike is protecting delivers him the pills. He’s smart but I haven’t seen kindness. Tuco cares for his family but what does Nacho care about? This is why he isn’t a pro.

Hamlin – Hamlin is presented as a tool and as the character we are supposed to hate as he is the will of Chuck we learn. He always like Jimmy but because of Chuck could never express it or show it as Chuck didn’t want his brother to be a lawyer. He’s very distant from everyone until he opens up about how much he respects Jimmy. I’m still putting him as okay because I would have liked to see more of that and I don’t know his motivations or why he likes Jimmy.

  If you liked “Breaking Bad” you will probably love “Better Call Saul.” Season 1 was much more solid than early “Breaking Bad” and was defined by drama that didn’t often involve life and death situations. This gave time for the show to be introspective in ways “Breaking Bad” early on wasn’t able to be. This is one thing I love about this show and if it can sustain this and Gillian and Gould know where they are taking the show, this could possibly surpass “Breaking Bad” in story and quality. It is still the beginning though, which means the arc could go in any direction. We are afterall, still 6 years before the events of that show, which gives us a lot of ground to cover.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10.

Gone Home – An Amazing Game of Love, Mystery and Relationships

Gone_Home

        I’ve never been one for games that are purely exploration. Often times I find them overly convoluted and confusing and the gameplay tiring. It’s one reason I could never get into the “Myst” series…Though I am willing to give that series another chance as one of my favorite games is an exploration game, “Journey.” “Gone Home” is also a favorite after playing it last night, though mostly because of how immerse the story is. Suffice to say, if you like a good mystery and powerful story, chances are you will like this game.

      The game was developed Fullbright, designed by Steve Gaynor and composed by Chris Remo. The game is in the style of a first person interactive story adventure game.

     The story involves Kaitlin Greenbriar who has returned home after being gone for a long time traveling and studying abroad in Europe. When she arrives to the home her family had recently moved into she finds that everyone in her family is missing and must piece together the mystery of what happened as well as the mystery surrounding her Uncle Oscar who owned the house before.

From here on there are spoilers.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – Chris Remo did a great job on the soundtrack! There is the haunting sounds in the house combined with punk rock music and jazz when you put cassette tapes into tape players around the house. It gives the mansion a lived in feel beyond the graphics and items you interact with.

The Graphics – The graphics are fantastic! The house is beautifu/l and it is haunting as you are trapped inside with no way to contact the outside world as the phones are down because of the storm. There are also tons of rooms that are really detailed. From the bedroom of your little Sister Samantha who is the character who learn the most about and your father’s study as well as your mother’s sewing room. Each room has a distinct personality that the graphics portray really well. This also includes the hidden rooms that have a really scary feel to them and feel like they’re out of “Silent Hill” at times.

The House – As described above, the house is wonderful and has so much personality to it. From the hidden rooms with abandoned crosses and a safe, to Sam’s rockstar room, to the ornate bedroom and study of the parents. The house feels real and mysterious and is pretty much a character all on it’s own. Wanting to learn more about what it revealed was a big part of what kept me playing.

The Story – The story is amazing! There are a few stories that you get in the overacing narrative. Your Mom has a crush on one of the Ranger’s she works with and is having marriage problems with the father who was possibly molested by Uncle Oscar and lives in shame of his father’s expectations of him as an author as he largely rights pulp…and Oscar’s store going under and his seeking redemption from his Sister for what he did.

The Prime story is that of Sam and her girlfriend Lonnie. The story involves Sam accepting she loves Lonnie and expressing that through her story of Captain Allegro and the First Mate who go on adventures together and are lovers. Her parents are religious though and they don’t believe her when she comes out to them and put her under house arrest. Later when they go to work on their relationship at a retreat, Lonnie leaves the military and runs away with Sam and you find the Journal entries that describe all of Sam’s experiences of learning how much she loves Lonnie, her being an outcast at school and her past friendship with Danny and making peace with herself enough to the point that she can leave home and make a life with the woman she loves. Katie is the one who learns all of this and we see and hear it through her experiences of discovering the mystery of why the house is empty.

The Characters – Uncle Oscar – His ghost haunts the house but it isn’t literal. He probably molested Terry (the Father of Sam and Katie) as we see Terry’s height measured throughout the years but stops at age 12 in 1963, which relates directly to the stories Terry writes about JFK and the assassination of him. He is not a good person and though he seeks redemption and has regret, we have no reason to trust him. I put this character as a pro because he reveals Terry to us in regards to Terry’s drinking and trust issues and also we see how Lonnie and Sam are ghost hunters as well as they try and get rid of what they see as his ghost haunting the house.

The Parents – Terry is insecure and drinks a lot and has a powerful artistic mind. His niche market even catches on with Time Travel and the Assassination of JFK. We don’t really know his relationship to his wife though and sadly his rejection of his daughter (whether from his experience with Uncle Oscar (not realizing that Pedophilia and Homosexuality are two very different things) or his insecurity in his marriage lead him rejecting Lonnie and Sam (or his religious belief, “Bibles” are all over the house). The Mom is pretty driven too as she gets promoted in Oregon in the Forest Service is maybe having an affair with Ranger Rick and sews and is in contact writing letters with one of her old friends. She’s also an immigrant from Canada. We see she’s supportive of her husband even though she is exploring another option. The marriage is complicated but I get her doubts given the amount her husband drinks and his doubts and we don’t know if he ever shared what happened when he was 12. They are off at a Marriage Retreat when Katie returns home though.

Sam and Lonnie – Sam and Lonnie are pretty distinct and awesome characters. Sam is quite and an artist who finds her voice both in coming out to her folks and when she runs away with Lonnie. Lonnie is tough and independent and is a singer in a band and is all about self improvement via her nearly joining the military. They are pulled apart at one point as Sam is looking at Reed College since she has a scholarship and Lonnie is joining the military. After Sam comes out to her parents though they choose each other. They are reckless but committed and it makes them very human and my favorite characters in this.

The Message – The message is one of equality and love and it is powerful. We see two people who are willing to risk everything for one another since who they are has been rejected by their parents. It’s powerful and shows just how rejected they were. The time period is the 90’s but in some families in the United States an LBGTQ relationship would still be seen as wrong and be rejected and not seen as love even when love is there. This message speaks to the affect that has on people. If Lonnie’s or Sam’s parents had accepted their relationship, they would not have run away as they’d feel they had a safe space to be together and themselves.

Okay/Pro: The  Gameplay – The gameplay is good but not great. There were many times I wish I could have explored more objects or learned more of what each object meant. For example, your father’s novels about the “JFK Assisination” where a Time Traveler goes back in time to stop it and later on wants to save himself was a story I wanted to read. This story is a glimpse into your Father’s life just as “Captain Allegro and the First Mate” are glimpses into who your sister Sam is. I also wish you could go outside so there would be more than just the feel of danger as you explore the house.

Okay: Katie – Katie is a cipher and we don’t get much of her personality beyond her love of adventure and her family. I wish we could have got her thoughts about Sam and Lonnie running away and if she accepted them and loved them the way her parents never could. Still we get some characterization, I just wanted more.

   I played the game in full with my partner playing a few places in it. She had played it earlier and I am extremely grateful she introduced this game to me and that I got to play and discuss it with her. It was a story we could relate to in many ways and the characters were so real. When I started to play it was hard for me to put down, which is one reason I consider it a favorite game. The gameplay was good enough that it didn’t interfere with the story and it was still a puzzle and discovery game rather than an interactive movie. I highly recommend this game and not because of the story message, it is a great game and one of the beset I’ve finished in a while.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10