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

Avatar: The Last Airbender – Book 1 “Water,” Episode 14 – “The Fortuneteller” – A Matter of Attraction

ALTA  1 14

       “The Fortuneteller” is an episode that the entire first 2 seasons of “Legend of Korra” could have taken a lesson from. This episode is romance and relationships done right as we see so many characters dealing with their attraction to others, also “Bad Advice Sokka” makes an appearance too. It’s also a message episode, and one I appreciate.

        The episode was directed by Dave Filoni and written by John O’Bryan and Aaron Ehasz.

      The premise involves Team Avatar saving a man from a wild animal but him believing he was safe anyways because the town’s Fortuneteller Aunt Wu had predicted it. This leads Team Avatar on a detour to the town where the Fortuneteller’s student Meng is attracted Aang, while Aang deals with his attraction towards Katara (he makes her a necklace at the beginning of the episode). When the nearby volcano is about to explode, going against Aunt Wu’s predictions, it is up to Team Avatar to save the day.

The Pros: Meng – She is a character who is very flawed and young (she stalks Aang) but also is honest and has a good heart. She deals with Aang telling her the truth of him not being interested in her in that way and gives him the book they need to shape the clouds into the warnings of destruction so that the town will be forced to action before they are destroyed. She is stubborn and strong and an awesome minor character.

Aunt Wu – Aunt Wu isn’t perfect and most likely can’t tell the future, though she does have some awareness in reading people and situations and we do see a huge event occur in that she predicts the finale of the series (Aang’s finale battle) without knowing he is the Avatar. So she is perceptive in some ways. She also thanks them for saving the village and changing the clouds.

Katara – Katara is shown to be pretty naive in this episode. She wants Aunt Wu to tell her everything, but she isn’t naive enough as to not listen to reason…for example when Sokka and Aang tell her about the lava they’ve seen in the volcano and the knowledge it will blow, she acts and is part of the act that convinces Aunt Wu to follow their plan to protect the village. This is also the first episode we see where she notices Aang when Sokka comments he is a really powerful Bender.

Sokka – Sokka is the skeptic this episode and honestly the one who is the most right. It sucks that he is presented in a negative light until the volcano moment. It does do a good job of showing of how some people will believe anything regardless of the evidence. I really liked Sokka in this episode, it was an unexpected part of his character. Though he gives out some really bad relationship advice, “Be aloof, girls like someone who doesn’t care.” Wow, really Sokka? “Bad Advice Sokka” in a nutshell. The guy who has never been in a relationship, doling out relationship advice to Aang.

Aang – Aang is shown to be powerful in this and to be attracted to Katara. We see his power when he stops the lava with his breath when the trench plan that Sokka comes up with isn’t enough to stop the lava…and we see him speak honestly to Meng when she says she’s attracted to him. It’s a great moment and we see at the end that he is willing to go with the flow with Katara even though his feelings are unvoiced. This relationship dynamic is wonderful and felt much more believable than the Bolin, Mako, Katara love triangle.

Okay/Cons: Message Episode – For me in regards to storytelling the story should take importance over the message and this one the message felt like it was the most important thing. I agree with the message in regards to skepticism when dealing with the unknown but even though I agree with it, we’d seen nothing to show this as a character trait in Sokka prior.

   This is an episode that is worth seeing, even though it is kind of filler. We get to see that Aang is attracted to Katara, Katara’s desire for knowing in her search for the future and Sokka as the planner. These are all things I really liked in this episode, even if the message was sometimes like a hammer on the script.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003): An Amazing Tale of Love Among the Outcasts

Tokyo Godfathers

      “Tokyo Godfathers” is one of the two films I’ll be reviewing with a holiday theme related to love and family and the different forms those take. It’s a rich tale and I was glad it was requested. The animation style and the soundtrack are beautiful, and every single character who has dialogue is complicated on some level, making for a rich narrative as the story unfolds. The fact that one of the scriptwriter behind one of my favorite animes “Cowboy Bebop” was a part of this I think lended to the overall quality of the production. Keiko Nobumoto is one of the best anime writers out there.

      The film was directed by Satoshi Con who was also the one who wrote the story and was one of the writer’s of the screenplay, the other director was Shogo Furuya and the other screenplay writer was Keiko Nobumoto.

       The story revolves around three homeless people The runaway girl Miyuki, the alcoholic gambler Gin and the trans woman and former drag queen Hana. Their lives transform when they discover an abandoned baby and begin the search for it’s parents as they soon realize how connected they are to one another, the people around them and those connected to the baby. From here the story unfolds as each reveals the reason they are homeless and their scars they carry. The story itself takes place over Christmas Eve.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – The soundtrack has jazz as well as a french feel to it that give it a life and charm that simply adds to scenes, whether characters are running or bearing their hearts Keiichi Suzuki made a great soundtrack.

The Cinematography – The animation of this film is fantastic. Whether it is the details of faces or the brilliance of the landscape of a city, or the nitty gritty of the alleyways and dark sides of town, you feel like you are living in this place. Katsutoshi Sugai did an amazing job.

The Script – The script is gold. Everything we are told is minimum and only when needed, and the characters are three dimensional and their struggles are compelling. The animation could have been terrible but the script alone could have carried this movie. Only issue is narrative chopyness because of all the coincidences.

The Characters – The characters in this film are complex, and through their struggles we really get an idea of the theme, which I’ll get into later. Suffice to say, of the main cast ther was not a single character I didn’t like.

Gin – Gin is a liar, drunk and debtor and the one who finds redemption in caring for the lost baby and in his love for his lover Hana and the runaway Miyuki. We see his relationship with them grow, especially after he meets his biological daughter and she forgives him. It is then he learned how deeply he was loved and feels shame. You get the feeling after that he builds the relationship with her and he’s finally learned to value the relationships in life and himself after he nearly dies in the hospital. Toru Emori is great as the grizzled man who has stopped believing in himself or anything and learns to care and love again.

Miyuki – Miyuki takes the approach of someone who doesn’t care about anything. We soon see she does care though when she goes from not caring about the baby to reading books on how to care for it. The next step for her is when she opens up about hurting her father and finds acceptance and love from Hana and Gin. This leads to her later being in the place where after they save the baby, she can finally accept love from her father.  Aya Okamoto does a wonderful job in the role.

Hana – Yoshiaki Umegaki plays my favorite character in the film. She is a trans woman who left her drag bar after she attacks a man for insulting her. She later finds out her adopted mother accepts her though and saw the incident as small and is just happy she is alive. Given how fatalistic Hana is this is just what she needs to stand up to Gin and tell him the truth which leads to their relationship and love. She is the mother of the group and takes care of the baby that was left in the dumpster, that they later make their mission to get back to the parents. She is a hero but can be cruel and feel strongly about everything. This makes her compelling and her arc is learning that her life is worth living and that she doesn’t have to leave the ones she cares about behind, because they want her in their life.

The Message – The biggest message is that you are loved and that there are those who care about you. We see this when Hana visits her foster mom and her foster mom forgives her for attacking the client who had insulted her and tells her it was no big deal, in the moment when Gin’s daughter forgives him for being away and said that she just wanted to be with him again…and at the end when Miyuki’s father sees her and there is only acceptance and surprise there…as well as what all of them do to save the baby and get the baby back to it’s parents. The theme of love is strong and that we get trapped in thinking far less of ourselves than the ones who love us do and that they are there to support us if we just reach out. I loved this message as it showed hope and that as long as you are connected to others, you will find the help you need to heal.

       We also see the message of acceptance and love as Hana is never discriminated against for being a drag queen or trans and that Gin in facts loves her and she loves him. For Miyuki it was never an issue, they were the parents she chose when she lived on the street and she loves them both deeply.

The Ending – The message of acceptance and love is there at the end when the three of them are made Godfathers by the baby’s parents and in the implied reunion of Miyuki and her father. I really liked it given all the suffering it took for our characters to get there and how much they grew. They learned how to love others and in turn accepting themselves.

The Cons: Choppy Narrative – The premise of the story was a bunch of coincidences happening all at once, and it achieves that but ends up coming off as contrived at times. In many ways it distracted from the message more as side characters appear and disappear and we are given no reason to care about them. For this reason I have to put the narrative structure as a con. Way too choppy at times.

      This was a film I’d highly recommend. The story and message are timeless and powerful, we see human connections, growth and it is executed beautifully in the cinematography, writing and music.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10. Definitely a favorite film.

The Book of Life (2014): An Exploration and Celebration of Family and Love

The Book of Life

         “The Book of Life” impressed me, and I wasn’t the only one. After the show the halfway empty theatre erupted into applause and for good reason. A lot of films just have a good time with fun characters and leave it that, but this one actually managed to have some pretty amazing points beyond just general points and messages. It truly got into the motivations of it’s characters and what defined them and critiqued and celebrated the culture that inspired it. I wish there were more children’s films like this. I’ll get into the details of what I mean in the assessment.

      This film follows both the Halloween theme (spirits and the dead) while also celebrating another culture and holiday in that it is inspired by the myths and legends around the Day of the Dead.

    “The Book of Life” was written by Jorge Gutierrez and Doug Langdale, directed by Jorge Gutierrez and produced by Aaron Berger, Brad Booker, Carina Schulze and Guillermo del Toro whose name is the first thing you see when the show begins. His vision is a large part of what made this film possible. Which is great since he’s one of my favorite directors.

       The premise of the film begins with troubled kids from detention taking a tour of the Mexican Cultural Museum where a mysterious lady who is their tour guide shows them the “Book of Life” and tells the stories of the characters after laying out the world where the afterlife has “The Remembered” in constant celebration ruled by their God La Muerta and “The Forgotten” who have been forgotten and are ruled by the God Xibalba. It begins on the Day of the Dead where three best friends have a wager put upon them by La Muerta and Xibalba on who will win the hand of Maria. Xibabla chooses the fighter and warrior Jaoquin to win her hand and La Muerta chooses Manolo, the muscian from a line of Bull Fighters. From here the story unfolds as family obligation is put on the characters, forcing Maria abroad to Spain for school, Jaoquin as a soldier for Maria’s father the General and Manolo as the Bull Fighter to win her hand. These are the main stories that unfold as the God’s act on the events around them.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The World – The world, especially when the tour lady starts the story is fantastic! Most of it takes place in the small town of San Angel, and when it isn’t there we travel between the Land of the Remembered and Forgotten. My only issue is I wish we had seen conflict in the other worlds but that might have been the point. The conflict is among the living and among the living we see drama between lovers, family and bandits. The colors are dark and stark so when there is color it is beautiful! Every scene is rich with detail that helps give us the worlds and minds of the characters.

La Muerta – She was my favorite character in this and the one who seems to have wisdom even if she quickly will give it up for a bet. This need to take risks and bet adds dimension to her as a God especially in her relationship to Xibalba as all she wants is honesty from him and true sorrow for the things he’s done. For this reason her making Manolo her champion makes sense since he speaks the most genuine and honestly and isn’t bound by social pressure the way Maria and Jaoquin often are by their father’s legacies. He has enough will from the beginning to break that, much like La Muerta with breaking the rules so that Day of the Dead can occur and families can reunite for a time. That is her doing and there is a reason she is loved. She also has a great character design with a flowing red dress, skeleton face and candles on her hat and dress. Kate del Castillo does a great job bringing gravitas to the part.

Xibalba – Ron Perlman plays a very crafty role, which is great to see. His character reminded me a lot of Hades from Disney’s “Hercules” except that he deep down did just want love. This drives his character to strive for power as he feels slighted and jealous at everything La Muerta does and hates that he is watching over a world that is dying with people forgotten, for he feels forgotten. This drives his recklessness and makes him compelling. He doesn’t want to be alone and left out and that makes him sympathetic even as he does some pretty bad things to the human pawns in the bets (poisoning Maria and tricking Manolo into giving up his heart). He also has a great design that looks like acid and tar, which at the beginning is what he’s described of being made of.

The Sanchez Family and Manolo – The Sanchez family is fascinating, we see the legacy of bull fighting and “Being a man” a huge part which Manolo turns on it’s head by being a musician. Much of the story is his father coming to terms with that choice and Manolo’s inability to kill. It brings great drama and it is this dichotomy between tradition and doing what’s right (not to kill) that leads Maria to falling in love with him. Manolo thinks outside of himself while his family is largely obsessed with legacy. His mother doesn’t agree with legacy and shows how complex their family is in the Land of the Remembered as they had ancestors who fought in the revolution and that at the core it is character and integrity that matters, which Manolo has. He discovers all this when he meets his mother and dead ancestors in the Land of the Remembered and his mother and grandfather help him reach La Muerta who has been forsaken to the Land of the Forgotten because of Manolo’s death by Xibalba’s snake. We see him change the family legacy as it comes to a head when Xibalba will grant him life if he can defeat all past bulls killed by the Sanchez family, which he does in an epic battle that ends in a song for forgiveness for what his family has done. In the end they all grow through Manolo’s actions.

Of Jaoquin’s Hyper Masculinity – Jaoquin is obsessed with fighting and being tough above all else and this is celebrated by the culture as seen by the Sanchez all being bull fighters. His father was a hero and when he saves the General who is the mayor of the town and Maria’s father he is taken under his wing. This shapes his tendencies in viewing people as serving him rather than the other way around that when Maria returns he can’t see past himself and only wants to talk about his medals. It takes his talisman that makes him invulnerable being taken and Manolo dying for him to rethink his priorities and to stop trying to be the hyper warrior his father was. He also stops assuming what Maria wants and in the process the competition ends between the friends as they both truly act from love. His arc is growing out of his hyper masculinity and finding tenderness and balance. Malono goes through this too but much faster as for him it’s the simple choice of not to kill the bull.

Maria – Maria is an interesting character. She functions as a plot device for the boys to get out of their families shadows and become their own people, but she also is her own person too. She’d marry Jaoquin if he’d stay to protect the town from the bandits but if that isn’t an issue and if Manolo loves her, she’d choose him. She’s educated and smart and she calls on the town to fight back against the bandit invasion. I kind of wish La Muerta had chosen her as her champion. Zoe Zaldana is wonderful in this role.

Relationship Healing – Xibalba realizes how selfish he was and in the end he rules together with La Muerta again, it’s implied as they change from their human disguises (museum guard was Xibalba, tour guide was La Muerta) and they kiss. Manolo and his father make peace, Manolo and Jaoquin make peace, Maria and her father are on the same page and the town fights off the bandits. The arcs get completed and it’s all the rich for it. “Write your own story.” As the Candle Maker (the 3rd Death God) reminds us at the end.

Okay/Cons: The Kids – The kids in detention are there giving commentary like the grandson in “The Princess Bride,” and like him they are pretty forgettable. I get that they are standins for us, but they aren’t really needed. The story is rich and I cared more about the final reveal of Xibalba and La Muerta than about them.

The Music – Most are mariachi inspired covers of popular songs…this film would have worked better with an original soundtrack given it is an original world without pop culture references besides the songs. The songs kind of took me out of it for that reason.

The Beginning – Things start out really slow, both with the kids in modern day (never really cared about them) and when our heroes are children. I get why it’s important as it establishes their motivations (Maria to prevent killing and her hatred of it, Manolo and his music and bull fighting dichotomy and Jaoquin haunted by his father’s martyr legacy). But it could have been done faster. The best parts of the early scenes are when La Muerta and Xibalba interact.

The Candle Maker – Ice Cube plays a God who is kind of like Robin William’s Genie and just as annoying. I couldn’t stand how annoying this guy could get which is a shame since the Candle Maker as the neutral party is an interesting concept. He isn’t bad and has some great wisdom, but in the end is merely a somewhat annoying plot device.

       This was a really good film. I don’t know if I’d call it great because the things that are okay are at many points cons through the film. The kids are super annoying at the beginning and the slow start makes it hard initially to get invested in the characters until we see them again when they are older and active agents in their own lives. We just didn’t get enough time with the Gods in the beginning and had too much time with characters who were children. Still a fantastic film that I’d recommend. If you like animated films that have their own style and a good message, this is your film.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10, really good and a favorite.

Stardust (2007): A Fairy Tale of Love

Stardust

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, Neverwhere, American Gods and Anansi Boys and the Sandman Series are some of my all time favorite fantasy works which makes me somewhat worried by their eventual screen adaptation in film or television form. This film gave me hope that it can be pulled off well though, and this film made me want to read the book that it is adapted from.

“Stardust” was directed by Matthew Vaughn who was also one of the producers and screenplay writers. The other producers were Neil Gaiman, Michael Dreyer and Lorenzo di Bonaventura. The other screenplay writer was Jane Goldman. The fact that Neil Gaiman had a producer credit on an adaptation of his work was a good sign going in to the film.

“Stardust” is the story of two worlds a village called Wall in our world and the magical kingdom of Stormhold that is separated from the wall. The story begins with Dunstan Thorn crossing the wall because he is curious and meeting an imprisoned beautiful woman he shared a night with. Later a child Dunstan names Tristan is left at the wall and the story follows from him  and his journey to learn how to love and in the process discover the heritage of the world he is a part of when he crosses the Wall to catch a falling star for Victoria, the woman he is infatuated with. Around this time the King of Stormhold has died and competition to catch the falling star is on as a Coven of Witches also joins the hunt since a Star’s heart can grant eternal youth and life.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Narrator – Ian McKellen narrates the beginning and end of the story giving it a fairy tale feel and his voice is super memorable and worked wonderfully. I also would have been down with Patrick Stewart being the narrator too, but it was McKellen and he is great!

Cinematography – The Cinematography is amazing and really captures the fantasy feel, the best examples I can think of is the darkness at the wall, Captain Shakespeare’s ship in flight, the falling of the Star and the final fight sequence. All of these made it feel epic and worthy of being on the big screen. Ben Davis did great.

The Music – The music has a “Pirates of the Caribbean” feel which worked in it’s favor, as Sky Pirates appear at one point and the witches and older society it takes place in in our world and Stormhold add ambiance and tension to the world. IIan Eshkeri was the right guy for this film.

The World – I’m largely going to talk about Stormhold here but even the world of England presented is fascinating, as an old man guards the Wall to keep people from getting into Stormhold. Stormhold is a rich world full of royal intrigue, dangerous witches, stars that are living human beings and Sky Pirates. There is so much to love here and I can’t wait to read the book that inspired it all!

The Characters

Dunstan Thorn – The story really starts with him as he crosses the wall and spends a night with the enslaved princess Una. They have a great experience together as she is the experienced person who knows her world and he is the wide eyed idealist. We see him care for his son after too as it was the one thing she wanted from him since he couldn’t rescue her. We also see him support his son Tristan to cross the wall and gives him a Babylon Candle to do so. I wish we’d gotten more of old and young Dunstan. This is where this as a mini-series might have worked better. Ben Barnes (young Dunstan) and Nathaniel Parker (old Dustan) are fantastic in what time they have though.

Princess Una – Uses what little power she has to resist and gives a gift that protects her son Tristan from the witches. I really wish she’d been the one chosen to rule as near the end she’s the one helping Tristan and Yvaine fight back against Lamia and her coven. She was a great but underutilized character. Kate Magowan did well with what she was given.

Prince Septimus – Is an antagonist for most of the film and Mark Strong does a really good job with it as we see him off some of his brothers and try to capture the fallen Star. He is brutal but has complexity too as he works with Tristan in the final fight against Lamia and her coven. His biggest problem is he never brings enough men and he lacks any sort of empathy which is when he is helping Tristan near the end and when he dies it is hard to fully sympathize with him in any way.

Lamia – Michelle Pfeiffer makes a great villain. Her witch is the final boss of the film and deserves the role as we see her be the one with the highest body count at the end and it takes multiple characters to finally defeat her. We see a bit of humanity (even if it was possibly false) when she mourns the death of her Coven Sisters and goes super sayan for the final battle.

Tristan Thorn – He’s the generic hero but he does a good job at the generic hero. He realizes that he just like Victoria because she was attractive but didn’t know her as a person and that his time spent with Yvaine showed him what love actually is. He also goes through a great training montage with Captain Shakespeare and his crew. Charlie Cox is good in the role even if he isn’t great.

Yvaine – At times she needs to be saved, other times she does the saving. Her character is the fish out of water as she was cast out of the kingdom by the King before he died and so many factions are trying to get her it would have been easy to make her a plot device. Thankfully that didn’t happen. She also gets the final kill on Lamia when she goes Nova at the end as she and Tristan are sharing their love. Claire Danes was good.

Captain Shakespeare – This is one of the best roles I’ve seen Robert De Niro in. He plays a gay Sky Pirate and is fantastic! His character is written with respect as he shows the life he can’t show his crew to Tristan and Yvainne when he trains them how to capture lightning and to be self sufficient. He gives them cover stories and idealizes England as he’s heard stories about it. At one point he is revealed when he is cross dressing and Prince Septimus attacks, but it doesn’t matter as his crew always cared about him for who he is of which his sexuality is part of. He is my favorite character in the film and I’d watch or read a story just about his adventures.

The Message – Love – The message of love is great in that it is learning to love others and be open, honest and risk for those you care about…and to see beyond appearances. As Victoria was all about appearances and not connection, and Captain Shakespeare learned the appearance he put on didn’t matter as his crew loved him anyway for the man he was. It also expressed love knows no gender or sex and is greater than that. It’s caring for others and yourself and being a part of something greater.

The Cons: The Ghost Peanut Gallery – Every time a prince dies or someone who could become king they appear how they died and do commentary on the events going on. This got really annoying really fast and took away the drama that should have occurred when one of them died.

The Random Princes – There are a few princes who die or royalty who die who aren’t worth mentioning. They were there for comedic relief and failed at that, which hurt the drama of the chase for the crown and the drama with the witches.

The Side Characters – From the other two witches, to Lamia’s slaves and countless others…they don’t feel all that deep or interesting. They are pretty much background which would have served the story better if they were.

“Stardust” is a great movie and one I’d highly recommend. My hope is that future book adaptions of Gaiman’s work can be just as good if not better since the worlds he creates inspire the writing in my own. This movie had a great cast, great directing, music and cinematography and is well worth watching if you are a fan of fantasy.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great.

The 12th Doctor – Series 8, Episode 4 – “Listen” – The Power of Fear

Listen

“Fear doesn’t have to make you cruel and cowardly. Fear can make you kind.” – The Doctor

“Listen,” is a great episode, I’m just going to say that now. It has some of the best Moffat writing and really shows the potential and promise for the rest of the season. Speaking of which, Steven Moffat was the writer of this episode and Douglas Mackinnin directed. They did fantastic.

The story shows us the Doctor’s curiosity as it begins with the Doctor wondering if there is someone or something there under the bed and just out of sight as he’s read about the dream throughout time and experienced it for himself. This also happens when Clara is going on her first date with Danny Pink, and the story unfolds from there.

SPOILERS

Here is the assessment of the episode:

The Pros: The Tone – The tone is one of reflecting and fear. The Doctor is thinking about fear and trying to discover if there is a creature it is tied too. This leads to his usual recklenessness (Clara tapping into the Psychic link to the TARDIS to find her first memory of it) and his actions on the last planet in the Universe.

The Cinematography – The cinematography captures the epic scale of what the episode covers and shows us the personal and universalness of the emotion of fear. Mackinnon did a great job directing.

Danny Pink – Danny is in this episode briefly at the end where he and Clara make up, and during the date where there is romantic tension, but where they both aren’t very socially aware. Fear has paralyzed them rather than forcing them to action. This is sorted by the end as they both learn kindness from their fears of failing each other. We also meet Danny as a child as Clara has a link to him from the date and she and the Doctor help him face the mysterious creature under the covers and letting it leave the room. It’s a great scene and we learn Danny was an orphan.

Clara – We see her awkwardness here in her first date with Danny, her connecting with the their descendant who is also a time traveler who gives her the soldier without a gun that she gave to Danny as a child and that she later gives to the Doctor as a child. She is active in this and reminds the Doctor that fear is important, as his lack of fear and curiosity almost gets him killed on the last planet in the Universe. This is another great Clara episode as she is connected to the Doctor but still her own person, she isn’t the Doctor’s McGuffin like in “Name of the Doctor.”

The Doctor – I’m saying the Doctor as a whole cause though Capaldi is amazing, this story is bigger than him. We get a glimpse into his childhood as he is afraid of the dark and his own fears and demons that haunt him so he chooses to sleep in a barn. The young Doctor is always in shadow, but he has long hair like the 1st Doctor. It is similar to when we saw the young Master, and just as if not more powerful as he chooses later to return to the barn as the War Doctor to make his big choice. We see his curiosity as we visit a young Danny Pink and his ancestor who it implies is related to Clara. The Doctor is the soldier so brave, he fights without a gun. He faces his fears armed only with his mind and in that succeeds.

The Message – Like the quote above, fear can make us kind as we realize what it is that is making us vulnerable and afraid. Fear can make us fight for the ones we love and fear can make us superheroes and make us run and fight faster and harder than we would (as expressed by the Doctor to a young Danny).

The Mystery – Something was under Danny’s bed, so there is a creature or creatures most likely still out there. Not knowing in this case serves the story, like in Series 4 and “Midnight” where we never find out what creature was haunting the train and possessing people and the Doctor.

This is perfect Moffat. He does the tone and mystery and making you scared of what you don’t see and having a bigger purpose. He turns associations of fear on it’s head and show how fear can be a positive. We also get amazing Clara, Doctor and Danny development. I highly recommend this episode.

10 / 10. Moffat at his best and in his element.

Casablanca (1942): An Amazing Story of Love in a Time of War

Casablanca

       “Casablanca,” is a film I always caught at the wrong time, every time it was on, so much was going on already so the movie was always in the background and usually remained unfinished by the time I would leave. “Casablanca,” is a fascinating film, considering it was completed when World War 2 was still going on. The Nazis still occupied a lot of Europe and it was unknown who would be victorious in the end. The screenplay itself is based off a play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. The fact that they were writing from a time where history remained unwritten gives the present of the story so much life. 

   “Casablanca,” was directed by Michael Curtiz and is the story of Rick (Humphrey Bogart) who owns a saloon in Nazi occupied Casablanca in the French Morocco. He is a pretty selfish guy whose perspective changes when a former lover named Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) re-enters his life with her fascist resisting husband Victor Laszlo…from here the story unfolds as politics between factions arise as the drama unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

Pros: The Music – God I love the music in this. From “As Time Goes By,” to the orchestra pieces and the jazz…you feel like you are in Casablanca and the music always fits what is going on. I could listen to this soundtrack for days and plan on using it to inspire my own writing. Max Steiner is fantastic.

The Cinematography – The cinematography captures the cramped feel of the bazaar, the open feel of Rick’s saloon and the noir feel of the ending in the escape sequence intermixed with the backstabbing and double dealing.

Rick Blaine – Humphrey Bogart owns this role and creates a compelling character who we never know if he is selfish and all about the money…or still the idealist at heart that brought him to Europe in the first place to fight the fascist governments as a mercenary. We see his complexity through his relationships, from Sam who is his piano player at the saloon to the French Captain Louis Renalt and Isla and her husband Laszlo (as well as smaller smuggler characters too), they  each reveal parts of his selfish and selfless side as the story goes on.

Isla Lund – What would you do if you believed your husband to be dead and fell in love with another? This is Isla’s dilemma as her romance with Rich in Paris occurs when she has believed for some time that Laszlo is dead. Also Laszlo loves the cause more than he loves her and Rick loves her. This is an interesting choice and she only gives up her agency to Rick at the end when he tells her he’ll need her to to help her and Laszlo escape. Ingrid Bergman is amazing in the role and gives us a complex character who makes her own path in a situation where it is difficult to do just that.

Sam – Dooley Wilson is the connection to Rick and Isla and is a character with a lot of awareness. He tries to talk Rick out of dredging up the past and tries to help him and Isla move on even as they use him as a tool to express their feelings of love lost in the song he plays, “As Time Goes By,” he is a great singer and the only downside is I wish he’d played more of a part after the First Act. After his attempts fail, he just kind of exists as the piano player.

Louis Renalt – I love this character. He is the kind of character I love watching in television shows…characters who are a shade of grey but when they sell themselves as truly selfish it is believable because of how charming they are and how they do what is asked of them…though with always an added twist. Claude Rains is my favorite minor character and I’d have watched the movie it was just about him and how the events of the story change him or force him to reveal where his true loyalties are.

The Dialogue – Reveals the distinct personalities of the characters and helps show events rather than tell events. The best example of this is when we see Isla and Rick’s time and Paris and how the romance happens. It is subtle and the lines show how each of them are hiding their past but want to be together with what they can give…as well as Isla’s leaving where you know there is more going on, but until Laszlo’s reveal…we don’t know what that thing is.

The Reveal – Renault sets up a Nazi officer being sent to the airplane where Isla and Laszlo will be escaping but the Nazi Officer is killed by Rick who is fighting for them. His choosing to fight for Isla and a higher cause of the resistance is the big reveal as well as Renault being sympathetic and joining with Rick to go and fight the Nazis.

The Message – Love is greater than romance, there are ideals greater than the individual and the theme of solidarity in resistance. Love is greater than romance in that Rick gets over his wish to be with Isla and lets her leave with her husband telling her “We’ll always have Paris.” He has finally gotten past himself and sees that if they were together it would involve hurting her (letting Laszlo get caught) in the process. The other part is when he kills the Nazi officer and re-devotes himself to fighting the fascists. Renault joins him in this and they decide to join the French Resistance. There are also the themes of solidarity in the singing of “Viva la France,” against the Nazi’s nationalist anthem and Rick helping a Bulgarian couple escape by letting the husband win in his gambling so they’ll have the funds to travel to America. There are others as well, but this theme is pervasive and makes the film even stronger.

Okay: The Nazi Officers – They are just kind of there, but exist mostly as a threat. I never felt like they were fully fleshed out in regards to their motivations. Sure they get lines, but there aren’t any characters like the S.S. Officer in “Inglorious Bastards.” They serve their role, but are pretty replaceable.

Victor Laszlo – I really wanted to like this character. He is a resistance fighter with a compelling backstory (fought for the Czech and other resistances in Europe against the Nazis) is put in a concentration camp and escapes, and he forgives Isla for cheating on him. The actor just doesn’t make his character greater than his role though. He is there to be the face of the resistance and love of a cause (he’d leave if he got the chance and leave Isla if it meant continuing the fight), but he just isn’t as compelling as Isla and Rick. I wish we’d heard more about what he went through, we can really only guess based off what we know.

The Length – This movie at times feels long. This is good for building tension, but sometimes can drag. This isn’t a con though since I love all the time with the characters…it just needs to be addressed since it isn’t a pro. It would have been a pro if it didn’t feel long.

     This is one of my all time favorite films after tonight and one I intend to watch again in the future. There is a reason it won 3 Academy Awards and why it is recognized as one of the classics. It’s themes are timeless, it’s characters are great and the music is some of the best from any movie. It is a near perfect film and reminds us of the things worth living and dying for. I can’t recommend this film enough.

My final Score for the film is 9.8 / 10.

Blue Gate Crossing – 藍色大門 (2002): A Coming Out Story and the Bonds of Friendship

blue-gate-crossing

“Blue Gate Crossing,” is a famous Taiwanese film directed by Yee Chin-yen, it was nominated for Best Asian Film at Hong Kong’s 23rd Film Festival. I was interested in seeing it after a friend and mentor recommended it to me and the fact that I love Taiwan, I was fortunate enough to visit their for a month.

“Blue Gate Crossing,” is a drama about love between two high school friends (Meng and Lin) and a guy (Zhang). The story is an exploration as Meng discovers she has feelings for her girlfriend Lin and that she doesn’t like guys as well as Zhang learning what love means by supporting her when she shares her feelings about her friend with him.

Here is my assessment:

The Pros: The music – The music is the best part, there are so many piano pieces that compliment the many different emotional places throughout the film. From Zhang biking home on his bike away from his feeling (intense piano cords played quickly), to reflective as we go into Meng’s mind.

The Drama: I give drama it’s own area here because this really is a character piece about Meng. Lin is only there to help her move on after Lin doesn’t return the feelings after coming out…this is contracted with Zhang who becomes her best friend and accepts her as Lesbian.

The Message: Is powerful, I have yet to see a movie like this here in the states (though some television shows have done a fine job of the coming out and acceptance of oneself story). I loved how well the movie did showing and not telling. We see Meng dealing with societal pressure and the fact that she does like Zhang as a friend, but that it hurts that he does end up dating Lin even though he still has feelings (though is able to put them aside for the friendship) and Lin rejects her. Zhang does have difficulty initially, but he accepts her coming out pretty quick which is contrasted by her friend since the beginning who rejects her.

The Script: Lots of great showing and not telling, or if we are told something it be contrasted by the reality of the characters’ actions.

Okay: The Cinematography – There were some great shots at certain moments, such a long shot during the Principle’s Speech but for the most part it wasn’t anything super memorable.

Cons: Lin’s character – She just wasn’t fleshed out enough, which is a shame since she started out as Meng’s best friend. I wanted to see more of that beyond them just talking about the future and Lin manipulating Meng to hook her up with Zhang. The most we got was that she liked Zhang and that she was manipulative.

Some of Zhang’s actions – Initially he is pretty stalkery in the beginning and at one point starts a physical fight with Meng when he is going through his heartbreak, afterwords he accepts her…but the fact that the physical fighting ever came up is an issue. I wish it had been presented negatively, instead it is just kind of brushed over.

It was a great film that I would definitely recommend. I hope to find some similar films here in the States. Any movie that deals respectfully with the coming out experience and recognizing LGBTQ rights while telling a good story is worth watching.

I would give this film 8.4 / 10. It is a solid film and well worth seeing. Hopefully in the future we can see more movies like this from all over the world.

Bottle Rocket (1996): The First Wes Anderson Masterpiece

Bottle Rocket

“Bottle Rocket” was the first movie that Wes Anderson directed, as well as wrote. He co-wrote it with one of the actors who he has collaborated with in countless other films, the famous Owen Wilson. “Bottle Rocket” is the only Wes Anderson movie I hadn’t seen yet, which was part of the motivation to see it and give it a review.

The premise is two brothers aspire to be famous thieves after one of them escapes from a mental institute. From there it explores their relationships and antics as the drama unfolds. Like most Wes Anderson it is a comedy as well as drama. The main stars are the Wilson brothers (Owen and his lesser known brother Luke).

You can see the themes and style that Wes Anderson has in the rest of his films, in this first film which in turn leads me to the assessment warning it has SPOILERS:

Pros: The Dialogue – Like Joss Whedon, Wes Anderson is a master of witty dialogue, the main difference between them is Whedon it is sometimes wit for wits-sake verses Anderson the dialgue always reveals more about the characters and relationships.

The Cinematography – Wes Anderson is known for how symmetrical all his scenes are, this is very true for his first film too where it was first established. From a broken down car slanted on the highway, to the shots of the mental hospital and any scene where someone is walking down a hallway or up or down the stairs…you can always see the angels in the scene…it his unique style and I appreciate that it has been there since the beginning.

The characters – The relationships between the characters are so fleshed out that all of them are compelling (especially the love story between Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Inez (Lumi Cavazo) and Anthony and his brother Dignan (Owen Wilson). Within this he navigates the multilingual and multicultural relationship between Anthony and Inez who is the maid at the hotel they escape to after a robbery. The brothers relationship is how they both are lost and need direction and Dignan’s creation of it through the robberies while Anthony is just trying to get back on track and after his relationship end with Enez, finds it again which in turn leads to them both having grown (her with learning English and her own feelings since she was already responsible – and Anthony finally becoming responsible). The story reminds me one of Anderson’s later movies “The Darjeeling Limited,” which also involves brother resolving their differences and growing as a family and individually. Owen Wilson is also a reckless character who is a bit of a dick (but empathetic) which I think is his shtick. Suffice to say the characters are really well done, especially for a first production.

The Ending: It is bittersweet in the best way. Character relationships are resolved, consequences happen both good and bad and the love story continues…I love the bittersweet which Wes Anderson is a master of as a storyteller.

Okay: The Music – It isn’t super memorable and kind of works at times but isn’t perfect. Not a soundtrack I would seek out except for maybe a song or two.

Robert Musgrave as Bob – Not super memorable, the weakest actor…even the minor characters make more of an impact. He just didn’t seem all that invested compared to the rest of the cast.

Cons: Dignan’s character arc – He as a character doesn’t grow. He is the same guy at the beginning and the end except he grows to respect and care for his brother and Bob…and sacrifices himself during the job for another…I thought this would lead to something more, but in the end he still the same guy in regards to how he sees his actions…versus Luke and Bob who have grown out of it.

I’m glad to have finally gotten the chance to see the film. I got to see the seeds of where Wes Anderson’s style was first in motion…I would recommend it just for that reason, he was talented from the beginning. This isn’t my favorite of his films but it is a favorite film. My favorite Wes Anderson films will be reviews for another day.

I would give this movie a 8.75 / 10.