Review: Samurai Jack Season 5

May 16, 2017 0

We’re just about at the end of Samurai Jack season five. For those of you not in the know, creator Genndy Tartakovsky created the original Samurai Jack, which aired for four seasons, from 2001-2004, without a conclusion. The first show was largely a series of interconnected vignettes, Jack and his arch enemy Aku the glue that tied the show together. A mere 12 years later, Tartakovsky decided to give the show an ending, and we have 10 22-minute episodes with incredibly tight story telling to enjoy.

Samurai Jack has always been on the cutting edge of animation, having one several awards for outstanding animation. Entire episodes have been in black and white, or used outlines. It always takes avant garde risk and pushes the envelope not only in animation, but in music as well. This particular season surprises and compels. It is designed for adults. Adult Swim on Cartoon Network has always aired the show, but this season is the first where Jack has killed–and suffered psychological fall out for it.

You might wonder if you can make sense of Samurai Jack without watching the original. You can. However, knowing the original story helps you appreciate layers, especially in the episode where Ashi searches for a despondent Jack and we see how many people Jack has helped over the years.

Season five is a worthy ending, standing alone, but enhanced by what has gone before. If you do not get Cartoon Network, the show can easily be purchased on Amazon.

Review: The Monkey King

April 29, 2017 0

Sometimes I watch films over my husband’s shoulder. The other night Bryon was watching The Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven, a 2014 film starring Donnie Yen as the Monkey King. It looked pretty good, so yesterday I watched it with no shoulders in the way. For those of you who don’t know the story of the monkey king, this primer will get you up to speed. The Journey to the West sequence most folklorists are familiar with begins in The Monkey King 2, and there are plans for The Monkey King 3 to be released soon.

A critical overview of The Monkey King‘s reception in the United States points to what seems to me to be a lack of understanding about Chinese culture and cinema. Mind, I am certainly no expert, but I find the complaints of the movie lacking substance or the main character Sun Wukong of being annoying to be irritatingly groundless. In China it is the top grossing film of all time, and it is likely to be, as the story is as ingrained in the Chinese cultural conscious as Superman is in our own. Except, imagine if Superman had been around for some 500 years or so. Anyway, I think U.S. critics (and many viewers, if the Netflix ratings are to be believed) have no idea what to do with it.

From my perspective, it is a touching story. Cast aside all the special effects, and what you have is a story about an outsider trying to find his way in a world that is hostile to him, losing his love, and being used by people who do not have his interests at heart. Small wonder the Monkey King goes rogue at the end of the story, and that Sun WuKong can get his morality under control at all is some kind of miracle. It is a story of growth, redemption, and repentance. I dare you not to be touched when Sun WuKong tries to resurrect his dead friends, his enormous guilt for leaving them to try to gain acceptance in heaven weighing heavily upon his anguished shoulders. The story edits the original to make the Monkey King more sympathetic to good effect.

The special effects enhance the film. If you are not a fan of special effects like those found in The Sorcerer and the White Snake, that’s probably a good enough reason to not watch The Monkey King. Also, the film is in Chinese, and you are going to read subtitles, which is a turn off for many people. Personally, I am a snobby foreign film viewer, so this is only a plus for me. I don’t do English dubs. I didn’t do The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo U.S. style either.

So, this viewer is looking forward to The Monkey King 3, as well as completing my viewing of The Monkey King 2, which I’m about half way through. Check it out for yourself. Don’t let the reviewers fool you. This could well be one of my favorite films. EVER.

Review: Story Genius by Lisa Cron

April 13, 2017 0

Fellow Unreliable Chia and I were talking about writing. I have finished the third draft of The Pawn of Isis, and my very kind first readers have been steadily getting feedback back to me, so I’m getting ready to revise. I have a couple of ways I revise. I have been using some of the methodology from Blueprint Your Best Seller by Stuart Horowitz. I really like the way that book makes you really look at scenes and evaluate them, center on a theme, and reorder and rewrite. It’s a lot of work, but (re)writing is a lot of work, so there you go.

Then Chia asked me if I’d heard of Story Genius by Lisa Cron. No, I had not, I said. Chia said she was going to read it, but she had to take it back to the library. I said I’d look into it.

Already, based on some feedback, I have decided that the book may need another POV, due to some of the important stuff happening off stage. So I rolled up my sleeves and decided to add some new scenes. I realized I was just adding scenes, and not necessarily solving problems. That’s when I wandered into Barnes and Noble, went to the writing section, and picked up Story Genius. I devoured the book over the next two days.

All writer advice works for different writers. I saw some less than favorable reviews on Goodreads, but I, on the other hand, liked it so well that I feel a bit like a zealot. Bear with me. This could help revitalize writing and revising for you, and might help you spend less time drafting. At least I hope so. Sometimes it takes me as many as 7-12 drafts to get a book right. I’m no Patrick Rothfuss, and I don’t want to turn out a book a week, but I think it’s got to go a bit faster if I want to publish regularly. I have hopes this might help me do this.

It’s all about character desire and misbelief, and connecting the external plot struggles with the internal emotional struggles of your character. There’s lots of good inventing advice, determining when to start the book, advice about writing the ending, working on scenes, so much good stuff.

I would advise you to go check it out yourselves. I find I like flipping back and forth as I use it, so you might want a paper copy. But if you are the kind of writer who really feels motivated by the emotional arc of story, and you want to reconnect with the fun of writing, this might be a good book for you. I can tell you I am now hungry to revise, and regret those days when I simply can’t fit writing in. It’s pretty heady to climb into the heads of your characters and their emotions. I had been getting bogged down in the wheres and why for of plot, and this is generating the plot according to emotions.

I can’t say enough good things about this book, and I think I might owe Chia a drink or a fruit basket or something.

Review: What You Should Know Before Watching Iron Fist

March 19, 2017 0

This week’s Year of Living Authorly Post is up at my blog so I can talk here about Netflix’s new Marvel offering Iron Fist. Yes, okay, I am not the first person this weekend talking about Iron Fist, but I have seen all thirteen episodes due to a spring break marathon with my husband, an Unreliable Spouse. We are mostly in agreement about the show.

Yes, it is in fact the weakest of the Marvel Netflix offerings thus far. I believe the problem rests squarely on the shoulders of bad writing. The dialogue is stilted. We keep flashing back to the same flashbacks. Characters actions and thoughts contradict themselves. It’s a hot, hot mess of a story, with one of the most disappointing endings that I’ve seen in a long time.

Should you even watch Iron Fist? Sure you should, but you want to go in with your eyes open. Know what you’re going to get and what you’re not going to get, and you might have a better experience. Here are some things to know.

Will I see kick ass martial arts? Nope, sorry. You would think you might, as the show features two of Marvel’s most kung fu-iest characters, a Kun Lun monk, and several members of the Hand. However, you will see some mediocre martial arts fights backed up by a weird 80s-style Tron soundtrack. I think you’re looking at 70’s action hero fare, if even that. I know, you expected martial arts. Do yourself a favor and go back and watch Season 1 and 2 of Daredevil and imagine that it’s part of Iron Fist. That’s what you’re going to have to do.

Will the show rivet me in action sequences from the get go? Nope, sorry again. Like every other Marvel offering, save the Daredevil offerings, the show is slow in the beginning and the middle. Unlike Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, however, there is no sharp pull-in, no call to action. Danny shows up and gets to be homeless while people discuss whether it’s him or not. Not exactly a blistering start. And then we spend episode two in a mental ward. We don’t even hear about Kun Lun until episode 4. It’s a slow coal train running through a small midwestern town, this show.

Will Danny Rand be an interesting hero? If you guessed no, you are right. Emotionally, he’s a 10-year-old looking for family because his own died, and looking in all the wrong places. He has no sense of adulting. This in and of itself could be interesting if played right, but it’s kind of boring, because it hits all the cliches you could imagine.

Will there be at least an interesting support cast to help me get through this show? Well, yes and no. Colleen Wing should be an amazing martial artist, but Danny is a hipster tool and Colleen is also a tool. If you watch the whole show, you’ll see what I mean. Colleen is also hampered by cliche conflict and contradictory characterization. Joy Meachum is a schizophrenic childhood friend who can’t decide what she wants. These two aren’t going to help you much.

Luckily for us, there is another plot line that involves the Meachums. If you remember Nobu from the Hand in the Daredevil series, you know the Hand can resurrect people. Harold Meachum, Danny’s dad’s business partner, received this gift from the Hand, and the plot line dealing with him may be melodramatic, but it’s also creepy and horrifying. Look, if you can watch for this plotline, watch for Harold’s crazy and his son Ward’s acting journey, you might like the show. Tom Pelphry, the actor playing Ward, really gets put through his paces. He’s worth the cost of admission.

Rosario Dawson reprises her role as Claire Temple and classes up the joint. Her parting shot of telling Danny and Colleen that they need therapy pretty much sums up the show. And Madame Gao is back, back in a big mysterious way. When I grow up, I want to be Madame Gao. Raise my hand and mystically throw people into walls. Damn straight. Except for the heroine production stuff.

So. Some good performances in a very poorly put together script. Some bright spots from actors who get a little better writing and plot line in the scheme of things. If you don’t watch the whole thing, you’ll miss the awesome appearance of Danny’s friend Davos from Kun Lun who says what many of us are thinking by that point, “You’re the worst Iron Fist ever.” It’s also probably your only chance to see an intern beat to death with an ice cream scoop this year.

Review: A Monster Calls

January 9, 2017 0

This weekend Bryon and I went to see A Monster Calls, which is based on the novel by Patrick Ness. I have not read the novel, but am interested in doing so. This is a hard film. This is not a film for children, for anyone who has experienced cancer personally or through a loved one unless you have some distance from the event. It’s also not a film for someone who might be losing a parent soon.

The film was harder on Bryon than me. His 90-year-old mother has Alzheimer’s, and while she is usually in good spirits, we lose a little bit more of her as time goes on. The other day, she had forgotten one of Bryon’s favorite childhood stories. That was hard for him.

In A Monster Calls, the protagonist Conor is about 12. His mother is undergoing treatment for cancer, and in his pain, he summons a monster. The monster decides he will tell Conor three stories, and at the end of stories, Conor will tell the monster the truth about the recurrent nightmare he is having. Conor will do just about anything to avoid telling the truth of that nightmare.

As the film peels back its layers, we learn about a variety of truths–Conor’s relationship with both his parents and his grandmother, the truth behind the bullying Conor experiences at school, and deep down, what his mother’s cancer is doing to Conor. At the same time, the monster tells Conor his stories and makes Conor question the simplicity of a child’s world compared to the complexity that has become Conor’s life.

The special effects in this film are beautifully rendered. Louis MacDougal, playing Conor, heads up a great cast which also includes Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, and Toby Kebbell. It’s worth seeing once for sure, although I’m not sure I can watch it more than once. Bryon assures me he cannot.

Most likely the only Academy Award nomination this film might see, if it sees one at all, is for special effects, which is too bad, because MacDougal carries this film with all the prestige of an adult actor at his finest.

Comics Review: Tonoharu

December 11, 2016 0

On the show, we’ve given a lot of love to Marvel Comics, and I can assure you, the Unreliable Narrators could do a very similar show on DC as well. It’s the independent comics that are a little harder to give love to. We have our faves (Mouseguard, Hellboy), but which indies you read are often a matter of personal taste.

Last night I drove home through an Iowa snowstorm after a full day of battening down the hatches for a creative snowy Sunday at home. I didn’t feel like digging into the writing or the huge epic fantasy I was reading, so instead I grabbed the volumes of Tonoharu that my comics guy, Ken, had tracked down for me.

Tonoharu may not pique everyone’s interest. It certainly picqued mine. The story is about two Americans serving as teaching assistants in English (think JET) in a small rural town. The art is in small squares, and is a simple, gray-washed style of moment pictures. In the prologue, Dan talks about whether or not he will renew for a year. For most of the story, we follow his predecessor, also named Dan, through his troubled, isolated year in Tonoharu.

Lars Martinson, the author, emphasizes in the support material, that the story paints a very grim view of living in Japan, and he goes on to wax poetic about how vital and life changing living in a whole different culture for a long time can be. I have to agree. While I have not lived for a year in Japan, my relationship with Japan has totaled 5 trips and probably about half a year in the country if you add it all up. My longest stay, as a student of Japanese in the summer of 1998, really helped me relate to Tonoharu. Dan is very much a fish out of water, although you can see that he would be just as uncomfortable in the US. His successor is much more like me, and figures out how to make it work in a compromise of the two cultures he’s negotiating.

The characters in the story seem real to me, because I have met so many of them. I have my own admirable sensei who is a fantastic person. I know my own shy students, strange expats who impose their culture upon the country, guys who are just there to sleep with Asian women. They all exist, and I found it eerie the way these characters might typify the expat experience in Japan.

I love Japan. Like any multi-cultural interaction, we find each other complicated and we have stereotypes about each other. We find enlightenment when we are surprised, we find isolation when we can’t understand. Tonoharu is a quiet comic, but if you’ve ever lived somewhere else for a while, you will find it a rewarding read. This will probably be one of my recommendations for the year as we close out 2016.

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

November 25, 2016 0

It has been said films which are set in the 20’s do not do well at the box office, and I understand this is true of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which had, according to Warner Brothers, a somewhat disappointing opening weekend. If you are looking for all Harry Potter, all the time, of course you aren’t going to want to see this movie. It’s set in the US, and in a different time period. The central figure in the film is Newt Scamander, whom many of you might know as the author of the textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find from the Potter series.

Turns out Newt is the Jane Goodall of the magical world. Newt has a mission–to help his fellow wizards realize the magical creatures they share the world with are not as dangerous as the ban in the US would make them appear. Well, let’s be realistic. They’re dangerous like all animals are dangerous, but Newt is a trained professional and unnaturalist, if you like. Newt’s a quirky, captivating character, very interesting and single-minded, so the film must be supported by some other emotional layers. Unfortunately, the female lead, an ex-female Auror, Tina Goldstein, is kind of lackluster and dull.

However, it is in the supporting characters where one finds the real emotional meat of the film. One Jacob Kowalski, a non-mag (Muggle to those of you in the know) ends up involved in the plot and seems like he will be the butt of jokes, but turns out to be a stalwart friend and yes, a romantic lead. Tina’s sister, Queenie, is a mage who reads minds, and is a charming, sweet woman. The chemistry between Queenie and Jacob is all the more poignant because Jacob is not allowed to remember his interactions with wizards at the end, a strange unnatural American law, as Newt points out to Tina.

The other emotional plot involves the manipulation of an orphan named Creedence, who has been adopted by theĀ  anti-Wizard organizer of Second Salem. Creedence is manipulated by Mr. Graves, a wizard high in the Magical Congress of the United States, who thinks he is the way to a dangerous young wizard who has a powerful, evil occulus. I can’t reveal much here without revealing a lot of spoilers, but this plot also has emotional depth, and also reveals Tina at her best.

If you want to see more of the Potterverse, as in not more Harry Potter, but more of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, this is a great way to go. Costumes are wonderful. Special effects are great. Newt is winning. Queenie and Jacob are fantastic. Go check it out and give it the love it deserves.

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