Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – An Amazing Exploration of Obsession, Revenge, Mortality and a Life Fully Lived

Kicking off “Star Trek Week” and the lead-up to “Star Trek Day” with my favorite of the films in the franchise. “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is easily still the best “Star Trek” film and one of my all time favorite films. This is a film with amazing music, action, characters and themes. This film was so much fun to return to and is a beloved classic for a reason. This is a film that explores the themes of obsession, revenge, mortality and the well lived life and I can’t recommend it enough if it is a film you haven’t seen yet.

The film was directed by Nicholas Meyer with screenplay by Jack B. Sowards.

The story follows Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) as he must face an old foe in Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán) seeking revenge against him and to stop him from getting the powerful Genesis device.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Soundtrack – James Horner’s soundtrack is fantastic and captures the wonder of space travel and life while giving sadness in the moments of loss. It reaches the highest highs and captures the operatic nature of the film so well. This is a soundtrack I look forward to returning to.

The Action – The action is precise and always advances the plot and characters. It is action with consequence as the ships are damaged in standoffs and force Khan and Kirk to think there way out of limited options in their quests to defeat the other. It never lets up to as the moments of quiet build upon the themes and drive the characters and story forward.

The Characters – I liked all the characters in this so will give a little bit on why for each group or individual characters as what they go through is what drives the story and makes it matter. There are very few films with no weak performances and this is one of those few films.

The New Enterprise Crew – The Enterprise is crewed largely by cadets as “The Original Series” crew are their mentors as Spock captains this new crew on their first mission. Many of them die sadly too in the face-off against Khan as he pulls Kirk into his trap.

Dr. David Marcus – Dr. David Marcus is Kirk’s son who resents him at first believing him to be that bog standard evil Starfleet Admiral who wants to use Genesis to their own ends. He is proven wrong and it is great to see his relationship grow with Kirk over time to the point that he respects him and is proud to be his son by the end.

Dr. Carol Marcus – Dr. Carol Marcus is Kirk’s former lover who asked him to leave and he respected it. She wanted to raise David as a scientist and you see why in the awesomeness and wonder of the life Genesis creates. She clearly is a scientist to help others and from this you see why Kirk fell in love with her. Bibi Besch does a good job in the role returning from the show.

Scotty, Sulu and Uhura – Scotty, Sulu and Uhura are all support training the new crew and keeping the Enterprise afloat. They all are given moments to shine in their roles as engineer, helmsman and communications and I only wish they’d been given more and that we saw more of the mentorship. Scotty is the main mentor to the crew we see in action the most. Takei, Nichols and Doohan continue to be memorable in their roles.

Chekov – Chekov is working on the Genesis project and is a hostage to Khan for most of the film until Kirk and the others kill the eel larvae. His ship Reliant becomes Khan’s but Chekov does resist when he is being forced to kill Kirk and in the end gets to torpedo Khan, getting his own revenge for the death of his commander and being hostage. Walter Koenig is great.

Saavik – Alley’s Saavik is the one giving us a new perspective of Kirk and Spock as she is the one who follows regulation but questions. Her knowledge of regulation is what saves them from Khan the first time when he nearly defeats them and in the end she is who Kirk admits to that he he cheated the Kobayashi Maru, the test we see her fail at the beginning as it is the unbeatable test. She’s a fascinating Vulcan and the navigator in Chekov’s absence. Her perspective enriches the film as she notices how human Kirk is and respects him for it.

Dr. McCoy – Kelley’s McCoy is the one who most helps Kirk face his mortality and is the one to join him on any away mission. We see how deep their friendship is as McCoy brings him Romulan Ale and spectacles on his birthday and is the one to motivate him to command and not be an Admiral. It is fitting as this is what helps Kirk decide to lead the Enterprise again and stop Khan.

Spock – Leonard Nimoy’s performance in this is iconic and easily one of his best. He is there to remind Kirk that how a life is lived matters and gives him A Tale of Two Cities as a birthday gift. He is Captain but like McCoy prompts Kirk to lead. He dies as he lived in this film with “The needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, or the one.” He saves the ship from Khan’s last act of weaponizing Genesis. I think if Spock had died for good here it would have been the perfect sendoff even though I like the stories he got later after this film.

Admiral James T. Kirk – This film is such a great exploration of Kirk as he tackles what it means to live as he is growing old and must face his mortality and eventually the “no win scenario” he avoided his entire life. Shatner gives so much here as we see him build a relationship with his son, reconnect with Carol, face Khan and his conversations with Spock and McCoy. He grows from it all and this film gives us some of his greatest speeches and probably his best character arc.

Khan Noonien Singh – Ricardo Montalbán’s return as Khan was a brilliant choice. Having him lose his wife and most of his crew gives him a compelling revenge motivation as well as Kirk did never return to check on The Botany Bay Colony on Ceti Alpha V. We see his obsession reflected in his books too as on the ship we see Paradise Lost and Moby Dick to name a few books with a focus on loss and revenge that Khan himself quotes. He is one of my all time favorite “Star Trek” villains and to his last breathe he is trying to get revenge upon Kirk even when his crew are questioning him and as he loses everything. No other versions of his story and revenge motivation have ever been as well captured in any of the other “Star Trek” films.

An Exploration of Revenge – Revenge as consuming obsession is another theme captured in Khan and his desire to kill Kirk even when he has the chance to walk away. Revenge is shown to be destructive and all consuming in Khan as he loses everything but nothing else matters but revenge, not even his life.

Mortality and Death – The “no-win scenario” and the Kobayashi Maru capture the theme of death that Kirk never had to face until this film. We see the affect it has too as Kirk is vulnerable after and that how one dies is as important as how one lives.

A Life Well Lived – A life lived for others and with awareness of those relationships is what is most important. We see this in Spock’s sacrifice and the relationships Kirk reforges with Carol and forges with David. We also see that in that new relationships in life in the Genesis device creating a planet from the nebula. Spock’s example is lived on in the life of those left behind and how important that fully realized life is where one lives for the needs of the many.

This film is a classic for a reason and one I cannot recommend enough. From the performances, the themes, the soundtrack and the action this film gives so many unforgettable moments that each time I return to this film I notice something new. This film is a favorite that does so much and I hope we can see more “Star Trek” and science fiction films as powerful as this one in the future.

Final Score: 10 / 10 The perfect “Star Trek” film.

Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011): Letting Go of the Past and the Quest for Inner Peace

“Kung Fu Panda 2” is easily the best of the “Kung Fu Panda Trilogy” and of the best animated films out there. This is a film that deals with the themes of trauma, loss and found family as well as giving us some amazing action and character arcs. This film is a favorite and I think shows just how great animated stories can be. So without going into spoilers, this is one I highly recommend.

The film was directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger.

The story follows Po (Jack Black) and the Furious Five when they must stop Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) and his new weapon from conquest.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Opening – We get a great opening with Michelle Yeoh’s Soothsayer saying how Lord Shen used the invention of fireworks to come up with weapons leading to his exile after he heard a prophecy of a black and white warrior defeating him. This lead to his hunting down all pandas and his parents exiling him. After we see him return to Gongmen City, his home an defeating the martial arts masters with his new weapon. The stakes are immediate and we see what is at stake when Lord Shifu gets the message of what has happened and sends Po and the Furious Five to stop Lord Shen.

The Animation – The animation is almost realistic in the forest and some of the city settings with the details of ships looking almost lifelike. It is beautiful and plays into the dark tone of the film.

The Action – The action is great in this with memorable sequences being attacking Lord Shen at the palace and the docks where we see is cannons on full display as well as how great our heroes are against his wolf forces. There are slower moments too that add impact when the action sequences happen.

Wolf Boss – Danny McBride plays Lord Shen’s second-in-command and he is a good threat too as we see him hold his own against Po and how well he works wit his pack. He also isn’t all evil too as when Lord Shen says he should fire on their men to take out the Furious Five and their allies he refuses, leading to Lord Shen killing him.

The Furious Five – The Furious Five get more to do in this and we see how well they work as a team as they shout out tactics they use. They are there for Po in his identity crisis they use and each of them have their moment to shine in fighting Lord Shen or teaching Po in the case of Tigress. I loved them in this.

The Soothsayer – Michelle Yeoh’s Soothsayer is a character full of regret as we see she tries to help Lord Shen let go and heal but can’t though sh is able to help Po heal. We see the regret she feels for sharing the prophecy that lead to the hunting of Pandas and how much she wishes Lord Shen could heal. She is compelling andshines in every scene she is in.

Mr. Ping – Mr. Ping in this shares how he found and adopted Po and we see his arc as at one point he fears that Po has left him forever when Po doesn’t say “I love you” when he says good-bye. It is a heartbreaking scene and I’m glad one of the last scenes is Po returning to say Mr. Ping is his dad. James Hong is once again great and one of the most memorable characters. He never planned to b a dad but embraced it when it happened.

Lord Shen – Gary Oldman plays the best villain in this series. Shen is a villain with so much rage and regret who can’t accept love and it has driven him to hate everything. He is a brilliant inventor but in the end he can’t see anything beyond that which he can take. He is broken and alone and it makes him a fascinating villain. All he has is his ego, pride and resentment. Just like Tai Lung.

Po – Po’s arc is powerful in this as he figures out who he is as he never new his biological parents (though we see his dad survived Lord Shen and his wolves at the end) and his need to know puts the Furious Five at risks. He becomes driven for outside validation like Lord Shen and Tai Lung until he remembers his past and his mother saving him during his time with the Soothsayer. It is a powerful arc and with Inner Peace he is able to free his friends and defeat Lord Shen and his forces.

How the Past Can Consume – Lord Shen and Po are both consumed by feeling abandoned by their parents (for different reasons) and this leads to them acting out and ignoring those who care for them. Shen only has his hat and rage and Po only in accepting himself realizes the friends and family he has, finding peace in the present. They are contrasted in the message of the film.

Found and Created Family – Master Shifu, the Furious Five, Mr. Ping these are Po’s found family and it takes him nearly dying to realize it as he comes to understand that he may not have the family who saved him but he has a family who love him. These relationships illustrate why this Trilogy is one of my favorites.

This is the best film in the Trilogy and one of the best animated films out there. It has so many characters and they all have a chance to be amazing and nuanced. I love this film and each time I return to it I notice something new. I highly recommend this film and of course the Trilogy as a whole.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Soul (2020): Pixar’s Exploration of the Realized Life

Soul (2020) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

“Soul” is an amazing film that brings hope in the horrid storm that is 2020. This isn’t my favorite Pixar film but it is a favorite film and one I’d highly recommend. This film tackles what it means to be alive and presents it in the form of Pixar’s beautiful animation and the fantastic soundtrack by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. Seriously, without going into SPOILERS I highly recommend the film.

The film was directed by Pete Docter who co-wrote the film with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers.

The film follows Joe (Jamie Foxx) a music teacher who has the chance for his dream gig when his soul is separated from his body in an accident. From here he seeks a way back as rebellious Soul 22 (Tina Fey) helps him along the way.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Animation – Pixar continues to show why they are some of the best animators around. In this we see the details have improved with the lighting in a jazz club at one point, contrast of light in the Beyond and the details of emotion in the eyes and face. This is easily one of their most beautiful looking films.

The Soundtrack – Reznor and Ross give us an intense electric soundtrack in moments of character isolation and also the kinetic living feel of jazz when Joe is going about his daily life and events are happening on Earth. It provides a nice contrast between moods and the way they capture life and realization is illustrated perfectly in the film.

Soul 22 – Tina Fey’s Soul 22 has had a whole bunch of soul mentors through history trying to help her find the reason to live and join in Earth and over the course of the film we see that their rejection of her leads to her becoming lost, especially after they experience life in Joe’s body for a while. This is handled well as lost souls are defined by obsession and guilt and it is in Joe’s apology for joining those voices she finally takes that leap to join life. 22 has a great arc. They are also the comedic relief through the film.

Joe and his Relationships – Joe and his relationships are the core of the film besides Joe and 22 discovering what it means to live. In this we see Joe heal the rift between himself and his mom (she didn’t want him to do gigs because his dad had trouble bringing money in and it was hard for them), the student who grew up and helped him land the dream gig and his barber and students. Each of these relationships reveal a facet of Joe and what motivates him and gives him reason for being and him seeing his life through another’s eyes helps him see the things he was missing. It is beautifully done and I’m glad he gets a second chance at life at the end.

A Life Lived is More Than Inspiration – One of the running themes is souls before going to Earth need to establish personalities and a final spark. The soul mentors see this as a passion but it is more than that. It is in noticing and experiencing life. The reason is in walking and being part of the world and the relationships in it. This premise is beautifully explored and handled so well.

The Cons:

Afterlife Rules and Leadership – We got Soul Counselors keeping track of souls going to the Beyond and preparing new souls to enter the world. They are meant as abstract beings but just came off as bureaucrats, which was a shame as their fluid abstract designs showed they could have been presented as so much more.

The Mystics – The mystics function as a plot device as they help 22 and Joe find a way back into the world through the sea of Lost Souls. The reason I didn’t like this is none of the folks were dead and the mechanics made even less sense than how new souls become ready to enter the world. They were also primarily comedic relief but weren’t funny, so that didn’t work. Luckily their role is small (but important) so they aren’t around for a long time.

This was one of the 2 films I had to see before I do my “Top 5 Films of 2020” and even though I don’t think this one will make it I still highly recommend it for all the reasons listed above. This film rises to some of the highest of emotional beats and succeeds. It is really only in afterlife rules and mechanics where it doesn’t work nearly as well as “Inside Out.” Seriously, check this film out though. It is easily the best animated film that came out this year.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10

Seven Samurai (1954): Akira Kurosawa’s Magnum Opus

Amazon.com: Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai - Akira Kurosawa) Movie  Poster 24"x36": Posters & Prints

“Seven Samurai” is easily one of the best films I have ever seen. I love Akira Kurosawa’s work and he is easily one of my favorite directors and this film captures the reasons why. This is his Magnum Opus and the story weaves and interconnected narrative where the character arcs and themes payoff throughout. Suffice to say, I definitely recommend checking out this film. There is a reason it has been adapted so many times since it’s creation.

The film was directed and co-written by Akira Kurosawa with the other writers being Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto.

The story follows a village that is being held hostage by bandits. When Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) has enough and decides they should recruit Samurai and fight back. The village elder agrees leading to their request to recruit Samurai to defend their village.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Soundtrack – Fumio Hayasaka creates a beautiful soundtrack that keeps the tension and stakes flowing throughout. It soars with battles and drops with mourning and the constant drumbeat reminds you of the mortality of all the characters at play. It is a truly great soundtrack.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful with shots that capture the village, the personalities of our characters and just how desolate life is for so many at this time. Asakazu Nakai captures Kurosawa’s vision beautifully.

The World – The world of the “Seven Samurai” takes place during the end of the 16th Century and in this we get the class structure and life and conflicts of people living during the time. It is really well done and Kurosawa explores that conflict between the different individuals and groups which truly brings the time period to life.

The Bandits – The bandits initially feel like a force of nature but their aesthetic and personality make them an intriguing threat. The warriors are dressed in a mish mash of stolen armor and their leader is dressed in full samurai garb. He is also driven by some type of honor too as he risks all his men and kills those who retreat because he will not be shamed by being defeated by the village. He also takes hostages at one point showing his craftiness as a villain as well. His second-in-command also has a distinct look of samurai armor and an eye patch. He like the leader manages to survive for the longest against their assault on the village.

The Villagers – The villagers are complicated and fascinating and we see their life over the course of the film and learn more about farmers. They hide the good food and sake for special occasions and are initially extremely distrustful of the Samurai, seeing them same as the bandits to some degree…They aren’t wrong to be afraid either as one of the samurai calls the Seven out for the wars of the Samurai creating this fear and desperation that drives them in the first place.

Shino – Shino is a wonderful character who spends most of the film fighting for her agency. Her father cuts her hair, afraid the samurai will take her and later when she falls in love punishes her again. He only sees her as a way to gain more wealth and I hated him so much. Luckily there seems to be a future with her and her lover Lord Katsushirō based on the last scenes of the film. Keiko Tsushima a wonderful job in the role.

Rikichi – Rikichi drives the action of the story and experiences so much pain and loss. From arrogant samurai beating him for even asking for help, to his wife killing herself in shame after she was used by the bandits. In the end he finds a reason to live though as a protector of the village and his friendship with the Seven. Yoshio Tsuchiya gives so much nuance to this character who was one of my favorites in the film.

The Village Elder – The village elder has seen a lot and we see how crafty he is in the amount of samurai he asks for and when he recalls history of the only village to not be sacked in the past was one that had samurai defending it. Sadly he does not survive the film as he refuses to leave his home in the bandits first attack.

The Seven Samurai – Besides Rikichi my favorite characters are a few of the Samurai. All seven are compelling in their own ways but the most intriguing and my favorites are the ones I will go into further. The battles is costly and only 3 samurai survive but how they change the village for the better and their legacy they leave behind is powerful. There is a reason the film is named after them.

Kyūzō – Kyūzō is the honor bound swordsman and probably the biggest badass of the group outside of Kikuchiyo. This is a man who inspires Katsushirō to be the best samurai he can be and he is key to their victory over the bandits. He trains the villagers in combat and steals a musket when battle commences. Sadly he is killed in the end and it is easily the hardest loss of the Seven.

Gorōbei Katayama – Gorōbei is the only other survivor of the Seven besides Katsushirō and Kambei. He is the kindest of the group besides Kambei and sees the big picture. He is an amazing strategist and he is an early motivator for Kikuchiyo to be better. Seeing his comradery with Kambei is wonderful and I’m glad he survived. Yoshio Inaba truly inhabits the role.

Katsushirō Okamoto – Katsushirō is the idealist protégé of Kambei who becomes it after insisting he join the quest. He also saves the villagers at one point when their rice is stolen and he gives them money so they can continue to feed the samurai as they are recruited. He and Shino fall in love and we see his respect for her life as a villager. In the end it is implied they end up together and that she might be pregnant with their child. It is powerful as he knows by choosing love he can no longer follow Kambei but he clearly knows where his heart and honor lies.

Kambei Shimada – Takashi Shimura gives us the noble leader of the Seven who is driven by his loss as every side he has fought for has lost, but somehow he survives. His nobility is established early too as he saves a child taken hostage by a crazy man. He also survives the war with the bandits too and voices it as a curse as he knows he is about to lose his protégé to the village too.

Kikuchiyo – Toshiro Mifune plays the most compelling character in this piece. Kikuchiyo is likely a stolen identy as we learn that he was raised as a farmer and his full of hatred of the samurai he has become. His arc involves him becoming a responsible leader as Kambie inspires him to be better with each reckless act he does. He takes this to heart and in the end we see how much he cares for the village and their livelihood as he is the one to kill the bandit leader before dying from the bandit leader’s musket blast. This complex and compelling warrior calls out the samurai for creating the conditions of the villagers fear and desperation and he is right, in this way he is the best warrior because he understands the cost of war so well.

The Cost of War – The cost of war is a theme that is ever present in the film. You see it the village elders story of past villages destroyed and in the life of the village. Women have been kidnapped and made slaves by the bandits and the village is living on the edge with very little to offer leading them to horde what of value they have. Fear dominates the village and the cost of battle and the constant presence of death is shown in how many villagers and samurai die in their victory, and in the property the bandits destroy in their first attack. There are no good choices in war and the film captures that so well.

Class Conflict – Class conflict is another theme of the film. Kikuchiyo stole the identify of a samurai and gains status from it. We see how villagers are treated as the lowest class in town and it is the nobles wars that hurt the farmers and the poor. The film doesn’t shy away from this and it is most beautifully illustrated in Kikuchiyo’s speech to the Seven on why the farmers are the way they are because of these wars.

This is one of my all time favorite films and it doesn’t feel long at all. Each character arc pays off and all the threads are interconnected to create this beautiful unforgettable tale. This is Kurosawa at his best and I can see why it has inspired so many adaptations. If you haven’t ever seen an Akira Kurosawa film I’d recommends starting with this one. This is art in it’s purest form.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) – The Work for Peace and the Legacy of “The Original Series”

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) - IMDb

“Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” might be my favorite film out of all the “Star Trek” films. The biggest competitor is still “Wrath of Khan” which I need to re-watch but from my memory both are so close in score. I love the deeper themes they explore and the rich characters who are brought to the screen. Suffice to say, this film still very much holds up. It has a few problematic that I noticed this time around, but the story, without going into spoilers, is still amazing.

The film was directed and co-written by Nicholas Meyer with the other screenplay writer being Denny Martin Flinn.

After the Klingon moon of Praxis explodes from overmining Spock reaches out for a chance for peace with the Klingon Empire, and asks for Kirk to be on his envoy. From here the story unfolds as those wanting to sabotage peace act upon events.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

Relevant Cameos – I want to get some neat cameos out of the way upfront as most of the moments I’ll be describing are major events and characters (for the pros and cons) so without further ado. I loved seeing Yeoman Rand’s cameo, Michael Dorn as Colonel Worf, Worf’s grandfather were two cameos that were fantastic in this film.

Destruction of Praxis – The Destruction of Praxis was meant to mirror Chernobyl’s destruction and the ending of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. What works about this is how there is a complete shutoff of info from the Klingon Empire and that Captain Sulu witnesses it first hand so the truth of what happened can’t truly be denied. It lended weight to events especially as Spock mentions that without aid the Klingon homeworld of Qo’noS will be unhibatible in 50 years prompting the work for peace.

The Dinner Party – The dinner party is such a fun scene. In this the clash between Klingon and human cultures is on full display. You have General Chang egging on Kirk and Kirk rising to it while Gorkon is attempting to keep things civil as folks on both sides of the table alienate each other through misunderstanding. Even with how uncomfortable it is, it still gives Gorkon hope and he shares that hope with Kirk before returning to his ship.

Chancellor Gorkon – David Warner does an amazing job as the idealist Klingon leader fighting for peace. He has elements in his cabinet who want war, which means the Klingon High Council is probably similar. This in turn leads to his assassination, as people from the Klingon Empire and Starfleet do not want the war to stop. In the end he believes in fighting for peace though as his dying breathe to Kirk is to not let this be the end.

The Assassination of Gorkon – Gorkon’s assassination is visceral as it looks like the Enterprise-A fired upon Gorkon’s ship and two people beamed aboard and killed Gorkon and members of his cabinet. It is a brutal scene that does not shy away from how horrible the act is. This in turn leads to the arrest of Kirk and McCoy as being framed as responsible for the murder.

The Prison Planet Rura Penthe – Rura Penthe feels like something out of “Star Wars” both in the alien design and how chaotic it is. This works though and I enjoyed seeing the Klingon underbelly where no one was safe and how it forced Kirk and McCoy to think on their feet. It was such a fun location and I enjoyed Martia, the shapeshifter we are introduced too.

Martia – Martia is such a fun character. She is working with the Warden to frame Kirk and McCoy and escapees and get paid but before that she does help them make peace and respect with the other prisoners. She is a complicated antagonist and Amen is wonderful in the role. She honestly carries the scenes she is in more than Kirk and McCoy.

The Investigation on the Enterprise-A – The investigation begins with the Enterprise crew stalling so they have time to investigate and so that the evidence of the assassination (the magnetic boots that were used). You get to see them exploring all parts of the ship and multiple main crewmembers coming up with new excuses to give starfleet or ideas of where the evidence might be. It is really thorough and the reveal is powerful.

Uhura, Chekov and Scotty – Uhura gets to use her diplomatic skills and is with Chekov suggesting solutions to the mystery. Scotty is also on hand doing the same and in the end discovers the assassination uniforms and gets to punch the man attempting to kill the Federation President. This film makes use of the entire crew and I love that they were more than glorified cameos. Doohan, Nichols and Koenig do a great job.

Valeras – Valeras is the villainous Vulcan who believes peace is illogical as it entirely depends on faith and goes against the history the Klingons and Federation have. In a way she’s right as there would be later wars but even those wars wouldn’t have the rubric for peace if not for the events of this film. She is a great character and shows how complicated the Federation and Vulcans can be.

General Chang – Christopher Plummer is amazing as this Shakespeare quoting Klingon obsessed with war. You can see how much it has come to define him as he will work with his enemies to make sure peace will never happen, even if his homeworld is destroyed in the process. He is the driven nationalist and his defeat is rewarding. He also has a proto-type Bird-of-Prey that can fire when cloaked and nearly wins multiple times in this movie. He is easily one of Star Trek’s best villians.

Captain Sulu and The Excelsior – I love Captain Sulu. This tea drinking captain discovers the destruction of Praxis and does all he can to help Enterprise ending in his ship The Excelsior helping to defeat General Chang in the end. George Takei really deserved a mini-series with his character. He’s such a great captain.

McCoy – McCoy is there as support to Kirk through all and we see how deeply he is invested in the peace process as well as how ready he is to enjoy his retirement. This dynamic is contrasted with Kirk who doesn’t want to leave while McCoy will always do his duty and protect his friends but is more at peace with his age and the next stages of his life.

Spock and Kirk – Spock and Kirk drive the primary action of the film and we see them grow as both grow over the course of the film. Kirk confronts and overcomes his prejudice due to Gorkon’s hope and him seeing first hand where hate leads and Spock sees the flaws in the Federation through Valeras’s betrayal and how his idealism blinded him to those who would want to keep the war going on. It is really well done and Shatner and Nimoy truly gave these characters a great sendoff. In the end they both find faith and hope once more and help the Federation and Klingon Empire find it too.

Chancellor Azetbur – Chancellor Azetbur is Gorkon’s daughter and still believes in his dream as she finds justice by trying Kirk and McCoy, which was fair given what she knew. She doesn’t let the Nationalists and zealots sway her and in the end it pays off as she signs the Khitomer accords and makes peace with Kirk as the true murders are revealed. Rosana DeSoto did a fantastic job.

The Cycle of Hatred – One of the themes of the film is how war feeds the cycle of hatred. Kirk’s hatred of the Klingon’s for one killing his son almost leads to greater war happening again and because of past battles old scars are carried forward by the people wanting there to be no peace.

Empathy and the Chance for Peace – In the end it is through empathy that peace is found as it is in Gorkon’s death that Kirk realizes how wrong he was and Azetbur does in the nationalist and zealots revealed. It is beautifully handled.

The Cons:

Kirk’s Shapeshifter Panic – Kirk sleeps with Martia who at one point turns into a giant beast and changes her gender. The film makes a joke of it. I hated it. “Trans panic” and “gay panic” is real and it harms people as homophobes and transphobes use that defense for their hatred. Kirk and McCoy should have been better.

Spock and Valeras Mind Meld / Mental Assault – When Spock is finding out the conspiracy he does a mind meld against Valeras’s will as she is one of the betrayers herself. It is horrible and I wish it had been called out in the film. There should been another way like a truth serum or something akin to that or Spock simply changing her mind through logic and reason as Trek usually does at it’s best. Like the “panic” scene I hated this so much.

This film is amazing, a favorite and still problematic. In this we get the best of hope for humanity and growth and also see where that growth is still needed. This evolution and embracing all is what the heart of “Star Trek” is and I hope we can see those greater stories in the future. This film ends the Klingon War and “The Original Series” in a way that matters and truly captured what made the show and films so memorable.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) – Hayao Miyazaki’s Great Directorial Debut

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My first time seeing anything related to “Lupin III” was back in college and I had not watched anything until now. “Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro” is Hayao Miyazaki’s first directorial (and co-writing debut) and it is amazing. The base characters are sometimes given depth and what would be a simple premise is made rich. Suffice to say, this is an animated film I’d highly recommend.

The film was directed and co-written by Hayao Miyazaki with his other co-writer being Haruya Yamazaki.

The story follows Lupin III as he investigates the Duchy of Calgriosto after a thieving job reveals counterfeit bills.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Animation – I love great 2D animation and this one is that. You have beautifully painted castles and landscapes that capture this European nation and we also get great action when you have duels or group fights. This is no small feet and the film never loses the magic.

The Soundtrack – Yuji Ohno did an amazing job of giving this film a fairy tale like feel to the story of a thief and princess. There is melancholy throughout and it enriches the moment of dramas.

The Action – This is an action heavy film and it works. You have unstoppable assassins that the Count is paid for to cover-up his fake money operation and with them we get plenty of fights. The characters are pushed to their limits including Lupin III who is injured for 3 days. This does a great job of illustrating the stakes.

The Characters – The characters drive this story and what makes a story work. These stories have been in a manga for years and the film seems aware of that is it calls out when all the main characters are now present. I was good with this as the relationships work and drive the film.

Jigen – Jigen is Lupin III’s second-in-command and he is a lot of fun. He is more cynical but completely knows Lupin and has his back. Seeing his interactions with characters illustrates how fun he is as in a lesser script he’d be dumb muscle but instead we get a compelling friend.

Lady Clarisse – Lady Clarisse is the love interest escaping from the corrupt Count who is attempting to gain the treasure her family name holds. She is always resisting and her love for Lupin grows over time. She makes full use of her agency and I love that after the count is dead she is now sole ruler of the Nation.

Fujiko Mine – Fujiko Mine is also a thief and on and off love interest for Lupin. In this she protects Clarisse and also helps Lupin and Jigen. She continues her own plan the entire time and succeeds and takes the basis for creating fake money. Her sometimes ally role worked great in this film and she showed how like Lupin more than greed and renown motivates her.

Inspector Zenigata – Inspector Zenigata is so much fun. I love his sometimes alliances with Lupin as he is bringing down bigger bads but his obsession to bring in Lupin is his core motivation. In this he is immediately used by the Count until Fujiko reminds him he still has power to take out Lupin and they team up to bring down the Count’s crime operation. He is such a fun character and it ends with him chasing Lupin once more.

Lupin III – I hate how Lupin is a womanizer. This is admitted early on. We also see he does have an honor code and does care for Clarisse. This is really what makes the story works as he gains nothing financial from his operation in Cagliostro and is taking down the evil count. This shows how even as a thief he is motivated by more than money and it worked. He is both simple and complicated and this film captures that contradiction beautifully.

The Mystery – The mystery of the Rings of the houses of Calgriostro is really cool as we learn that a Roman city was buried beneath the waters. When Clarisse and Lupin are exploring them together it captures how big of deal it is and also how it would mean nothing to the Count. It is a return of history versus a weapon or wealth which captures the heart of the film.

Okay:

The Count – The Count’s assassins worked in the shadows for Cagliostro to hold and keep power. He calls out Clarisse on this and that is the extent of his development. With a bit more he could have been great but we only get the hint of nuance from those lines when he could have been more.

The Cons:

Ishikawa XIII as Plot Device – Ishikakawa XIII is the samurai who works with Jigen and Lupin and he has no development. He is only around to stop the Count’s Ninjas.

Having not watched Miyazaki or “Lupin III” for sometime this was the return I wanted. This is a great film that gives us the best version of many of these characters. I would watch this film again and it has made me interested in the other tales of Lupin III. Can’t wait to see what other stories are in store.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10 This was a favorite.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992): Carried by a Strong Cast of Characters

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“Bram Stoker’s Dracula” was the first “Dracula” film I ever remember loving. It was years ago that I first saw it so I realize now how much of that was nostalgia but the film does still hold up, even if it is not as great as I believed it to have initially been. What really makes this film work is the presentation and the great cast as this time around the theme didn’t work as well for me.

The film was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and written by James V. Hart.

The story begins with Dracula (Gary Oldman) returning home to Transylvania after victory over the Turks to find his wife has killed herself based on a lie planted the enemy. He curses God and drinks blood from a cross he stabs. After we get a time jump where Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) must go to Romania to complete the deal with Count Dracula that Renfield (Tom Waits) was unable to complete.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

Cinematography – This is a beautiful film with tons of practical effects. Michael Ballhaus did a great job of bringing this world to life. It feels like an epic fairy tale.

Dracula’s Curse / Origin – The idea of Dracula turning on God and that is why he is turned into a demonic creature is fascinating. You can see why someone who already didn’t care much for humanity beyond his country would go full bad. It works and is a strong start to the story.

Framing the Story – I love how the film captures the essence of the book in how the story is framed. We have Mina’s diaries, Jonathan’s letters and also Van Helsing’s words as well. This was how the book was told and this film pulled it off as a narrative and framing device to let us know more of the characters.

Renfield – Tom Waits is wonderful as the crazy Renfield who above all else just wants immortality from Dracula. It is fascinating to see as he seems to be analyzing the world around him in as the manic being he has become. Any scene he is in, is strong due to the performance.

The Brides of Dracula – The Brides in Dracula have a purpose in this and aren’t just display! In this they are first introduced when they try to prey on Jonathan. All the actresses are charismatic and they are the ones who hold Jonathan hostage after Dracula travels to England and they are the ones who attempt to turn Mina and stop Van Helsing from destroying Dracula. This is easily the best portrayal they’ve had in any adaptation. Bellucci, Bercu and Kendrick did a great job.

Lucy – Sadie Frost does a wonderful job as Lucy. In this she has 3 suitors and each are compelling in their own ways. You can see why they are drawn to her as she is confident in herself and dreams. This is really where the tragedy comes in as like in the books she is one of Dracula’s victims, though she advocates for help before her death and is nearly saved. Lucy like the Brides, have their best portrayal in this film.

Lucy’s Suitors – Lucy’s suitors and friends are Quincey Morris from Texas, Dr. Seward and Arthur Holmwood. Each is unique in their performance and take an active part in the story and stopping Dracula. With Morris dying in the final attack against Dracula.

Dr. Jack Seward – Richard Grant imbues Jack with empathy but also a bit of madness too. You can see how Van Helsing has rubbed off on him and also his care for Lucy. He sees logic in Renfield and it is thanks to his getting Van Helsing that Dracula is stopped. He is the best version of the character put to screen thus far.

Arthur Holmwood – Cary Elwes gives us the best version of this character. He fights for Lucy, loves her and joins Van Helsing in the fight. I almost wish Elwes had been cast as Harker, as Keanu didn’t cut it where Elwes elevated a minor role.

Dracula as an Antagonist – Dracula is a great antagonist. You have this powerful night demon that still feels empathy and sadness and is extremely dangerous. is human and monster design are amazing too as one is classy and cool while the bat-demon form is almost wolf-like. He never doesn’t feel dangerous which makes him a great villain in a role Oldman owns.

Professor Van Helsing – Anthony Hopkins gives us a smart, crafty, and slightly mad version of Van Helsing. It is great and works. This is an old man who has been defined exploring the strange and supernatural and the film is made better when he shows up.

The Cons:

Dracula’s Roma – Dracula has a bunch of Roma followers and it is never explained why they follow him. They are also racistly referred to as Gypsies throughout the film so there is that negative too.

Keanu’s Performance – Keanu’s portrayal as Harker is so wooden and his English accent is bad. He isn’t a bad actor but he should not have been cast in this role. He like so many Harker’s prior, just ends up empty and bland.

Mina’s Role and Adapting “Dracula” – Winona Ryder is a good actress but her role in this feels ill-defined. She is a fridged character motivating Dracula so her role as Mina never fully exists as her being Dracula’s reincarnated wife defines their interactions. So Dracula gets away with murder and she becomes one willingly wanting to join. I hated this. There is no Mina, only Elisabeta in a universe where the rules of reincarnation aren’t even explained. Mina and Winona deserved to be full characters not Dracula’s motivation.

“Bram Stoker’s Dracula” is a beautiful and flawed film that I highly recommend. For all the flaws, the story is solid, the cast is amazing and Dracula is an awesome film that still holds up as a favorite.

Final Score: 9.2 / 10

Blade II (2002): An Amazing Film of Family and Vampire Politics

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“Blade II” is an amazing action film and is a film I consider a favorite after today. In this action film we get vampire politics, complex family drama, great character arcs and beyond the great action a rocking soundtrack and beautiful cinematography. The only con I can really say against it some of the CGI didn’t always work, so this is one I highly recommend.

The film was directed by Guillermo del Toro and written by David Goyer.

The story involves Blade (Wesley Snipes) rescuing Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) from the vampires who have turned him as a new threat arrives in the form of Reapers, vampires who can infect other vampires.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is fantastic. For starters the songs they chose outside of music that involve Mos Def fit the scenes perfectly and the rest of the score enhances the experience. Marco Beltrami did a fantastic job.

The Cinematography – Visually this is a beautiful film as the colors bring the world to light. You have Blade’s black against silvers and use of yellow, blue, orange and red in different scenes to visually pull you in. Gabriel Beristain did a good job with this.

The Opening – There are two scenes that get the film off on the right start. The first is meeting Jared Nomak who is going to a blood bank for help, but he is targeted by Vampires it is here we see that he is the original Reaper as he easily kills the vampires when they turn on him. The second involves Blade hunting for Whistler and we get a variety of action until he finally discovers and saves Whistler. It does a great job showing why Blade is feared which provides a nice contrast to Nomak.

The Bloodpack – The Bloodpack is awesome. This was a group created 2 years prior to hunt and kill Blade. Nyssa, the daughter of Lord Damaskimos is unofficially in charge and her partner leader is Asad. They are both able to match Blade in combat ability. The others the muscle types being Chupa, Lighthammer (a silent type with a giant hammer), Reinhardt (Ron Perlman) and the more assassin types being Snowman (Donnie Yen) Priest and Verlaine. Each of them has a moment of awesome fighting the Reapers so you can see just how dangerous they are.

The Reaper Threat – The Reaper threat is huge as anyone Nomak infects becomes strong and feral. His pack is only based in spreading the virus and feeding and they are dangerous too as they turn or kill all the members of the Bloodpack except Reinhardt and Nyssa. This is a testament to their strength as the Bloodpack are shown to be highly lethal.

Abraham Whistler – Whistler is far more compelling than he is in the first film as here his father relationship with Blade is developed and his chemistry with Blade’s new weapons expert Scud (Norman Reedus) is a lot of fun. In this film he is no longer distant and can relate a lot more to Blade as he was nearly turned himself. If you want to bring back a character you killed off in the prior film, how they brought back Whistler is the way to do it.

Eric Brooks / Blade – Blade is also the most human he’s ever been this time around. We see it in the empathy he has towards Nyssa and the conflict they face within themselves being vampires. He’s still just as driven as in the first film but he has to depend on others (Whistler, Nyssa, etc.) and that makes him a great protagonist this time. He isn’t unstoppable.

The Damaskinos Family Drama – The Damaskinos family drama is the core of the story and I can see where del Toro probably took inspiration from this in “Hellboy 2” as that also has a family drama at the core. Eli the Lord and Patriarch wants to make the “perfect” vampires who have no vulnerabilities. He is willing to risk his daughter Nyssa and all vampires to get there. Out of that was born Nomak and the hunger that comes with his artificial state. This leads to Nomak’s revenge after Nyssa turns against her father as she sees Nomak’s revenge quest as just.

The Tragedy of Jared Nomak – Jared Nomak was created by Lord Damaskinos who then sends Blade an the Bloodpack after him. This doesn’t stop Eli from gaslighting him though as we come to understand why Nomak is so driven. He has a hunger he can’t control and is alone. Vampires only want to use him and even Blade refuses to listen to him. In this way his end was given but I appreciate the tragic villain he is. Luke Goss does a great job and I can see why del Toro brought him back to play the Elven Prince in “Hellboy 2.”

Nyssa’s Redemption – Leonor Varela is great at giving us the complex vampire. She has some level of not liking what she is and the hunger but she also cares for her people. We see open racism from the Bloodpack against people who weren’t born vampires but never from her. Her and her best friend Asad are the “good” in the Bloodpack. This continues as Blade saves her twice and that changes her perspective. In the end she turns against her father and chooses death for her family’s wrongs. It is sad but her ending is powerful as she dies seeing the sunrise. This is a great example of how to do a “Redemption = death” arc right.

The Cons:

Some Special Effects – What makes most of the special effects work in this film is the fact that they are practical. A Reaper gets dissected at one point and you see how they have transformed and only have the hunger. The problem is when action scenes slow down or action is focused on. When the action is quick the CGI is fine but any scene that lingers for too long with CGI present stands out as bad. This is the only real con to the film though.

I did not expect to have a sequel to “Blade” be a favorite film of mine, but here we are. Goyer’s script is juggling a lot of characters and plot threads and betrayals but still pulls them all together. This is all while giving us a sympathetic villain and the threats to Blade feel like actual threats. This is everything a horror action film should be. I’m not looking forward to “Blade 3” but I’m glad that del Toro got to create this amazing film.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

What We Do in the Shadows (2014): The Perfect Vampire Comedy

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) Dutch movie poster

“What We Do in the Shadows” is one of my favorite films of all time. This is the perfect horror comedy that has some brilliant sendups to other vampire films in the characters they are while still inhabiting an original compelling universe. Suffice to say I highly recommend this one. Waititi and Clement are at their best in direction, writing and acting.

As said above this was directed and written by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi.

The story is a documentary following the lives of vampire flatmates Viago (Taika Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) and the ancient Petyr (Ben Fransham) in the lead-up to the Unholy Masquerade.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – The world of “What We Do in the Shadows” is fascinating. This is our world but inhabited by vampires, werewolves, ghouls and witches who have organizations and host parties and are trying to get by unnoticed. It is fascinating and gives an interesting dynamic to be explored in the documentary.

The Soundtrack – Plan 9 created a popping soundtrack that feels timeless given the immortals the story is following. It is catchy but also gives moments for reflection.

The Comedy – The comedy is hilarious. The film is done mockumentary style so there is a lot of situational dark comedy of the vampires living their lives as most of the humor works with them being “fish out of water.” From here Clement and Waititi only take the premise deeper with the characters and situations they create.

The Characters – The characters arcs are what make the film compelling as in this film most of the character situations change by the end. It is really well done how they are all weaved together.

Jackie – Jackie is Deacon’s “Familiar,” basically a vampire servant who wants to become one herself. Deacon continues to deny her this and we get to see how she brings them people and cleans up the messes after they’ve eaten the people. By the end she has become a vampire though as after Nick’s exile he changes her.

Deacon – Deacon is the worst of the bunch as in he’s the most unlikable and egotistical. Petyr was the one who changed him into a vampire and he sees himself as a rockstar, but he has to be pushed to do the dishes. We see his caring side come out though when he believes Stu is dead, showing he has some dynamic to his character.

Anton – Anton played wonderfully by Rhys Darby is the leader of a pack of local werewolves. They clash with the vampire flatmates on a few occasions with Anton being the one keeping back a fight. Later when they change they end changing Stu into a werewolf which leads to a peace and the possibility of friendship with the vampire flatmates. He’s one of my favorite characters in the film, though I have a few of those.

Petyr – Petyr is over 8,000 years old and takes inspiration from Nosferatu in appearance. He never talks but his approach to feeding is to turn any person he drinks from into a vampire. The implication from the story is he probably was the one who turned all the flatmates. In this way he is way more generous with immortality than the others who hold it pretty close. Deacon as the greatest illustration of the selfishness. In the end he is killed by the sunlight when a vampire hunter breaks in through a window in his basement home leading to the sunlight killing him. Ben Fransham does a great job acting entirely through facial expressions.

Nick – Nick is turned by Petyr when he manages to escape the flatmates trap and is ambushed outside their home. His arc is making peace with it as we see him grow to hate being a vampire after celebrating it initially. It is after his exile for telling the vampire hunter he was a vampire, which lead to Petyr’s death that he is exiled and seems to find some balance and identity in himself after leaving. He introduces the group to Stu, who is their favorite human and who they like more than Nick and who Nick first tells he is a vampire.

Vladislav – Vladislav, known as Vladislav the Poker is based off the Gary Oldman “Dracula” and was once a warlord and ruler. He fell from power after he and his wife broke-up, who he calls “The Beast.” Jemaine Clement gives this character so much nuance as you see his sorrow, ego and adapting to the modern world. His arc by the end of the film is confronting his ex and their eventual getting back together in their toxic relationship.

Viago – Viago is terrible but also a bit of a sweety. His approach is to make others feel comfortable and to have a good time before he kills them. He’s also a romantic too and pines for the woman he had moved to New Zealand for in the first place. He is the peacemaker of the group and can be a bit passive-aggressive while also being a bit of a troll towards the other vampires who aren’t the flatmates. He’s my favorite of the flatmakes, closely followed by Vladislav and Taika Waititi plays him brilliantly. In the end he reunites with his original love, who is now an old woman and turns her into a vampire.

Stu – Stu has the best arc in the film and is really the heart of it. He is the human friend of the flatmates and Nick’s best friend. He is protected by the group when the Unholy Masquerade wants to eat him and the group believing he is dead is something they take harder than Petyr’s death. His good nature and tech savvy endear him to the group and he is the reason that the rest of the werewolves are welcomed as potential friends after he is made one of them when he is attacked and bitten by one after the Unholy Masquerade. Stu Rutherford did a great job playing him.

At this point I’d say 2 vampire films make it into my favorite films. This film and “Only Lovers Left Alive.” I think Coppola’s “Dracula” has the possibility to be but I’ll need to watch it again. Great comedy is hard to write, especially in regards to film versus television but this is something Waititi and Clement did brilliantly. I’ve heard great things about the show too, so I plan to see that as well. Suffice to say, I highly recommend this amazing film.

Final Score: 10 / 10

13th (2016): A Powerful Exploration of Systemic Oppression in the United States

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     Ava DuVernay’s documentary is easily one of the best and most powerful explorations of the history of white supremacy and systemic racism directed at African-Americans here in the United States. This is a documentary that brings in multiple scholars and covers slavery up to school to prison pipeline of modern day. I highly recommend this documentary.

The documentary was written and directed by Ava DuVernay who co-wrote it along with Spencer Averick.

The documentary covers the oppression of African-American from slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow to the modern day systems of today like the school to prison pipeline.

The Pros:

The Interviews – The interviews are powerful and Ava chose great people to speak on the eras of history and modern day. Angela Davis, Bryan Stevenson, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Corey Booker are a few of the people interviewed and I recommend checking out all their written work and interviews.

The Eras of History and Facing White Supremacism and Structural Racism – This documentary is thorough in how it covers each era of history and how each era leads into the next. Just because laws are passed does not mean racist ideology isn’t passed down through those in power and that is where post-emancipation you see why very little changes and instead all that has changed is the means of enslavement and oppression. This is explored in arresting or fining freed people until they are arrested and than forced to work once more for the plantations they were freed from. This happened years after emancipation and the racist laws of Jim Crow weren’t overturned until the 60’s and even then the ways of keeping African-Americans from voting were still in play through poll taxes and making voting stations unreachable. This combined with the disproportionate targeting of African-American communities during the “War on Drugs,” kept this system in check up to modern time.

Today – The exploration of the modern day oppression was explored in the interviews, especially through the lens that that Bryan Stevenson brought in the disproportionate actions from police, the school to prison pipeline, the “War on Drugs,” and how bias comes out in interviews and who gets hired by companies. It is amazing and ties into the Black Lives Matter and all the murders by police of African-Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and countless others. We are far from an equitable and just society and this documentary explores all the ways that is the case today.

There is so more I could say on why this documentary works but most importantly I think it is important to use this education as a call to action. Systems of oppression can only change with action and that is where I’m going to end this review with a few organizations worth investing in in the fight for Equity and Justice.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Organizations you can donate to, in the fight for Equity and Justice: 

http://www.arraynow.com/ – Ava DuVernay’s Organization ARRAY she founded for justice and representation.

https://socialjusticefund.org/announcing-the-eradicating-anti-blackness-covid-recovery-grant/ – Social Justice Fund fighting anti-blackness and for covid recovery.

https://eji.org/ – Equal Justice Initiative, an organization Bryan Stevenson is a part of.

https://act.naacpldf.org//o/6857/p/salsa/donation/common/public/?donate_page_KEY=15780&_ga=2.231342234.480782673.1591028794-1029022299.1591028794 – NAACP Legal and Education Fund.