Spider-Man’s Way Home

Is Spider-Man: No Way Home a good movie? Yes. It is.

However, it must be said, either you know the story so far, or you do not.

It was said of Infinity War, when it first came out, that it didn’t explain all the things that one had to know going in, because by that point, over twenty movies in, one was already on this hype train, or one wasn’t. This is further complicated by how this is not only the one long-running hype train, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but its intersection with a second hype train, being familiar with the previously-unaffiliated Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man movie franchises. Heck, one could even toss in a third, as several incarnations of Spider-Man in movies, cartoons, and comics have dealt with putting our favorite web-slinging superhero together with his counterparts from alternate universes.

In short: it’s an enjoyable movie all on its own, but No Way Home is definitely a gift to Spidey’s lifelong fans.

There is a great deal to be said for this movie and what I felt while watching it.

There’s the love we have for the characters, hero and villain alike. After having gotten to know and care for them in their various ordeals from previous movies, we are already invested in every one of them, and so everything that happens when they are all put together, much like in Infinity War and Endgame, has a deep and lasting significance. No Way Home serves as a capstone to everything that has come before. It is the conclusion and epilogue of more than one journey for more than one hero.

Of course, the story focuses most on Tom Holland’s version of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. This is a young man who is barely more than a kid. He’s done wondrous, amazing things, including going to space and fighting alongside the world’s mightiest heroes to save the entire universe, but he’s still just a kid. He’s heroic, but still so innocent that he borders on naive. Much of that is stripped away from him by the end. He achieves more than he ever has before, taking his place as an equal among adults, but the cost is high. Many of the wonders and relationships of his childhood are left behind, and in their place are the burdens of loss and responsibility.

In short, Peter Parker grows up. He stops being a kid just trying to do the right thing, and begins to be an adult, with adult concerns.

Most poetic, though, in my opinion, was the sacrifice he chose to make in the end. I remember commenting about what he gives up way back in Homecoming. If I can be forgiven for quoting myself, I said, “in the final sum, he doesn’t do anything heroic for the thrill or the glory, but because he cares about people, and he cares about what’s right, and he makes his own sacrifices along the way. Sure, what he loses might not seem so dire to an adult, but that doesn’t make it any less real or meaningful.” As the boy becomes a man, the things he loses are absolutely dire to anyone, child or adult, and what he chooses to give up in order to save people is a weighty sacrifice indeed… but the choice of that rings true to who he has always been.

All of this is done while doing something which, frankly, I did not know how Marvel could ever pull off: they give Spider-Man a clean slate. This is his baptism by fire, dealing with demons without and within, and by the end, everything is stripped from him but himself. He has soared so very high among the stars and his secret identity has been made known, but by the end, he is brought back down to ground level, until he is, once again, what he always was: your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

There are super kudos due to everyone who was involved in this movie. The story was beautifully written, directing was perfectly competent, the acting was masterful, the music was powerful, the sets and cinematography and special effects, all superb. The humor was actually funny, the action was exciting and well-choreographed, the drama was riveting, and the suspense was thrilling. And the sorrow, as Peter Parker was brought to his lowest, felt genuine, as did the exultation of his triumph, and the heartbreak of his sacrifice.

This is a quality story, well-crafted and well-told.

There are a few small details which somewhat ignore plausibility. There’s how Doctor Octopus knows that Norman Osborn was the Green Goblin, killed by his own glider, when pretty much no one ever knew that, not even Norman’s son, Harry. And there’s how Peter was able to instantaneously conjure up the solutions he needed to counter each of the villains he faces. Speaking of, there’s also how the Sandman, by rights, I felt, should have been an ally instead of an enemy, all things considered, but they kind of brushed that under the rug without really addressing it. On the bright side, though, I really loved that they brought Doc Ock around, and gave him something of a redemption. Which seems to be a major theme of this movie: redemption, for hero and villain alike.

VERY strong performances from these three, though Lizard and Sandman ought not be forgotten.

So, yes, there are a few small flaws. But overall, Spider-Man: No Way Home is quite nearly a masterpiece. Certainly, one can make a good argument for it being both the best Spider-Man movie, the best movie yet in the MCU, and even the best superhero movie. Mind you, one can make arguments against that, as well, but what I mean is that the quality of this movie very much lives up to the hype, both in immediate gratification and as one can sit and really think about this movie long after experiencing it.

In summary… it works best if one knows everything about the previous stories, but I cannot recommend Spider-Man: No Way Home strongly enough! It is truly amazing.

Rating: 10 stars out of 10.

Grade: A-Plus!

Posted in Movies, Tuesday Review | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #374: The Promise of Law and Order

“Any kingdom that promises Law and Order surely has neither.”
– Lancelot, Quests for Glory
The School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani

When Lancelot says this, he is referring to none other than the infamous Nottingham, with its infamous sherriff, classic nemesis of Robin Hood and his Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. Of course the robbers robbed all the rich people, and kept robbing the rich people until nobody was rich, so now the area is poor. Where there is poverty, there is crime; where there is crime, there is corruption; where there is corruption, there is tyranny; and where there is tyranny, there is no Law and Order, there is only the neverending war to survive.

Such is the state of Nottingham, so-called land of Law and Order, when Lancelot makes this comment. It’s right there, in its own self-designation, yet Nottingham is plagued with poverty, crime, corruption, and tyranny, with no sign of the promised Law and Order. Nottingham is, in short, a lawless cesspool, no matter the tyrannical zeal of the sherriff who rules it. Indeed, he stands out as the great example of the lack of Law, because even though he claims to serve it, the Law does not bind him. As long as anyone is not bound by the law, most especially those who are supposed to enforce it, then Law will remain lacking.

This is particularly relevant today, I think.

Humanity has always been plagued by lawless Law, if you will. Kings, captains, sherriffs, popes, teachers, and more. In whatever office, at whatever rank, in whatever sphere, those who abuse their power have always appeared. And they have not been made to answer for it, because they are the Law, they are the Order, they are the rules, the state, the authority, the enforcement. It is a relatively rare and recent concept that the law-keepers must answer to the law they keep, that everyone, from the lowest to the highest and most especially those who enforce it, should all be held accountable by the law… that those who govern must answer to the people they govern.

“Justice for all” is still a revolutionary idea, and one which all of the unjust are united in opposing. They don’t want to be held accoutable for their crimes, after all. The entire reason they commit said crimes in the first place is on the basis of wanting to get away with it! And so they support each other in a loose conglomeration of evil, making connections, tying strings to one another, learning where the bodies are kept and keeping those bodies out of sight, thieves and gangsters keeping in with cops and politicians who keep in with big businesses and international networks of corruption that stretch across the globe. And all this while maintaining some outward facade of being sheep instead of wolves.

That last, however is rather telling.

Somehow, no matter the tyranny at hand, no matter the power they wield over other people’s lives, every one of these foul creatures must maintain, in the eyes of those they oppress, some sort of illusion of being better than they are. They must be seen not only as more powerful than any who might oppose them, but also as essential to the continued survival and well-being of their subjects. Right down to the abusive spouse or parent, maintaining that the cost of being free of them is worse than the cost of submitting to them.

Which is so much crap.

That is the single biggest lie they tell: we are not so bad, and you need us.

A kingdom that promises Law and Order is full of lies.

But a people who serve Law and Order, truly? Now, that might just get the job done, and cast all of the lawless ones from their halls of usurped power, into the dungeons where they belong.

Posted in Books, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Cowboys and Samurai

Cowboys and samurai.

The icons of American and Japanese culture and history.

At first glance, the two could hardly be more different. But as I was recently tinkering with a post for the far future (relatively speaking) it suddenly struck me that there are some surprising commonalities, not the least of which is the lingering impact they’ve had on their respective cultures, and therefore on humanity.

To explain that, of course we must first define what makes a cowboy and what makes a samurai. For obvious reason, I will be able to speak with much greater authority about cowboys, but I hope that I can represent the samurai with some accuracy. Still, for whatever I might get wrong, on either count, I humbly beg your pardon in advance.

What Makes a Samurai

If I understand correctly, the samurai, collectively, were an officer caste, meaning a class of hereditary nobles closely connected to the military. They were prominent, well-paid retainers to various landholding lords. They were figures of prestige and class, enjoying privileges that were denied to peasants in exchange for their service and skill. They had a fair amount of autonomy, answering only to their lords, their families, and their heads, and they could exact extreme consequences for any given slight against them. They were largely driven by duty to their families and loyalty to their respective lords, in accordance with their traditions and martial codes.

Said martial code, bushido, may be what they are most famous for, outside their skill with a katana. It may not have been quite so set in stone as popular culture makes it out to be, but the term can still serve, even to this day, in general reference to the way of the Japanese warrior. Indeed, as the samurai seem to have been established the 12th century, and lasted until the later 19th century, I’d say that seven full centuries is plenty of time for any such code to evolve as the ages and eras progressed. Much like the steel of the katana, the fires of time likely refined the virtues of bushido immensely. Whatever form it takes, though, it generally emphasizes the attributes of valor, honor, mastery of one’s weaponry, and mastery of oneself.

Another particularly famous attribute of samurai bushido is the practice of ritual suicide, called seppuku or harakiri. This is dictated by a definition of honor wherein defeat (or other failures), and all the indignities which follow, is so humiliating that it is better to die by one’s own hand rather than suffer it. There have been exceptions to the rule, such as the famous forty-seven ronin, who lived with the dishonor of defeat for quite some time before they all quietly assembled, as they had previously planned, to take revenge for their slaughtered lord… and then committed ritual suicide after they had accomplished their goal. There is a drive in that mindset, an unbreakable will which is, frankly, terrifying to find in any foeman.

That drive and force of will, I would say, is what truly defined the samurai as a whole, as it still defines their descendants and their nation. It is estimated that, just before their official abolishment, as much as 5% of the population were samurai. That’s one out of every twenty people who possess martial skill, mental discipline, and especially an education, along with the fortunes earned by their ancestors. After they were abolished, they had to turn their attentions somewhere besides military pursuits. Small wonder they came to dominate in business and finance, and raised Japan up with them.

Said abolishment, it must be noted, had little to nothing to do with their skills becoming outdated, as one might mistakenly think, and much more to do with… well, the Japanese military became much more cohesive in its command structure, in imitation of other modern-day militaries. The nigh-autonomy of the samurai did not serve this restructuring, so they were basically relieved of duty. Not all at once, of course. It was a gradual thing, a legal measure here, a reformation there, and soon enough they were simply not samurai anymore.

Yet, one can argue that though the rank no longer exists, the samurai still remains. It wasn’t the sword that made them samurai, after all, but their own will, their traditions and mindset. And as so many of them became prominent businessmen, they had all the leeway in the world to maintain such in themselves as well as in their descendants, not to mention any proteges who came around, though that last is more speculation on my part than verified fact.

In essence, the samurai were the guardians of Japanese civilization and culture for centuries. They were defined by their unique traditions. They were let go, but they were not destroyed, neither were they suppressed, not even by advancing technology. Though one can scarcely find a samurai in name these days, I imagine one can very much still find samurai in spirit all throughout Japan, especially in their upper class.

What Makes a Cowboy

Where I know relatively little about samurai, I know quite a bit more about cowboys. And the first thing to note is that while the “official” history or the cowboy is relatively short, almost everything about cowboys – beginning, middle, and end – is infamously informal and unofficial. For instance: the cowboy may be a fairly recent phenomenon, but its roots reach back through centuries.

To briefly turn back the pages of history, and then sprint forward again, we go to the Middle Ages in Europe. Society was strictly stratified between nobles and peasants, with the Church looming over everything. Every day was a struggle to survive, rooted to the same plot of land from the moment people were born until the day they died, and to do anything which displeased those in power was to court torment and death. After all, how is a starved serf with a shovel supposed to oppose a well-fed, fully-armed and armored knight with a lifetime of training? Those below were chattel to be used and discarded at a whim. There certainly were enough of them to go around!

Then a few pivotal things happened. A recurring plague wiped out significant portions of the population, and suddenly serfs were not so easily replaced. A few questions were asked, and soon man’s reliance on the Church to access God began to wane. The crossbow let peasants ambush knights, the printing press let new ideas spread far and wide, and an explosive powder, the use of which developed slowly over centuries to become ever more precise and easy to produce, began to pry power from the armored knight and give it to the poor peasant. People began to look outwards, to dream of exploring, to leave home and find new lands which they could make their own, rather than live as slaves stuck to one crappy piece of ground.

In short, people began to venture far from home, into untamed, hostile lands, guided by the emergence of a new idea: the hope that they could do better for themselves and their families, never again living by another’s leave.

That was the spirit which guided many of the colonists, the same as it guides immigrants today. It takes only a few pages in our history books, but people came to the Americas for centuries, leaving behind everyone and everything they knew and loved, to carve out a little corner of the world for themselves. That’s what America has always been about, and the cowboy was the very pinnacle of that spirit.

Cowboys were men possessed of that spirit which ventured into the western lands which were claimed by the USA, but remained wild and practically lawless. In lands ranging from dry desolation to beautiful bounty, where wealth could be found anywhere and the laws of man and nature collided, men of every sort came to claim a piece. Some were vile to the core, others where honorable heroes, and most were somewhere in between. And a great majority of them were properly armed, because that was the only way to survive.

These were the days of such figures as Wild Bill, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Curly Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, and so many more, people of ferocity, skill with the horse and pistol, and their own codes of honor. My personal favorite would be a relative of mine, Butch Cassidy, one of the last and greatest of all the cowboy outlaws.

But, ah, history marches on. The men and women of that age tamed an unforgiving countryside. And so civilization moved in, and with it came rules and bureaucrats. The six-shooter was replaced with more advanced guns that carried more bullets. The authorities grew in numbers and advanced in training. Machine guns were invented. And so on and so forth. Bit by bit, the cowboy simply faded from prominence into history and then into beloved legend.

…and yet, there are still cowboy hats. And men of honor with guns. And an enduring attitude of screw formality, a man ought to defend himself and his neighbors, and respect women. The descendants of cowboys may have inherited nothing concrete, but the spiritual heritage of the cowboy lives on.

How They’re Different

Samurai were hereditary warriors and retainers, steeped in duty and tradition; cowboys were a bunch of men with guns.

Samurai trained for a lifetime in the way of the sword and other weapons; cowboys just had to point and shoot.

Samurai underwent strenuous training to expand their every capacity until they became finely-honed weapons of subterfuge and war; cowboys .

Samurai was an official rank with a specified purpose; cowboys almost never had anything official about them outside whether they were a sheriff or an outlaw.

Samurai engaged in ritual suicide and were shamed if they did not; cowboys laughed at suicide as they fought at the Alamo.

Samurai were to be refined, elegant, and poised; cowboys were none of those, and that’s putting it mildly, with exception to

One was officially abolished, and the other simply vanished in the march of progress.

How They’re the Same

Both arose as their respective civilizations pushed into the wilderness surrounding them.

Indeed, both are inextricably linked with their nation’s progression and development, both heralding and advancing such even though that progress itself is what ultimately did them in.

Both had their time, their age and era, which ended fairly recently, and close to each other, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cowboys and samurai alike both had and left rich cultural heritages in their respective nations, with historic figures and legacies of honor which continue to instruct and inspire us generations later.

Though the Cowboy Code was far less official than the bushido of the samurai, both of them had codes of honor, with many similar tenets, to govern their behavior.

That honor was what drove their attitude in final stands, albeit to wildly differing results in regards to suicide of any sort.

Be they a warrior of the sword or of the gun, both are enshrined in the eternal conflict between hero and brigand. It is an elemental conflict, rooted deep in primal forces and drives within the human mind and soul.

Both stood up to forces far greater and higher than themselves, and did not always lose in such a confrontation. That speaks to a streak of fierce defiance in the spirit of either.

Though the sword and the gun require wildly differing skill sets and training time, cowboys and samurai are both famous for their quick-draw standoffs, not least because of movies and television.

Speaking of, both are obvious sources of inspiration in many forms of media, in a diverse range of stories. Westerns and samurai movies, of course, but also science fiction, space operas, superheroes, action and military dramas, even fantasy and more. There’s practically no limit.

There’s a reason why Seven Samurai was so smoothly adapted into The Magnificent Seven, and then again into the anime Samurai 7, each one following seven warriors as they defended the poor from predatory bandits in the middle of remote frontiers. And, as it happens, Akira Kurosawa adapted Westerns into samurai stories. Back and forth goes the rivalry and the symbiosis.

Finally – and this is just what I could think of off the top of my head – though the deadly pistoliers may be gone forever, as gone as the rank of samurai, one can make a strong argument that both still continue to this day. There are still wealthy Japanese men who teach their children the old ways, after all, just as there is still an abundance of American hotheads with guns and guts!

Posted in Discussion, Miscellaneous | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Servants of (Grisly, Gripping, Gruesome) War

If the word “squeamish” applies to you, this is probably not the book for you.

Being familiar with Larry Correia’s work in Monster Hunter International and The Saga of the Forgotten Warrior, I can confidently assert that he does not shrink away from scary images, mature themes, or realistic violence. I have no previous experience at all with the work of Steve Diamond, but he’s referred to as a master of horror, and it shows. Together, they produce some truly gruesome, horrific imagery. It is the stuff of nightmares.

If that is not your cup of tea, you shall find no smug judgment here, from me, for simply avoiding this title altogether.

But as for me, myself? I found Servants of War, by these two distinguished authors, to be a gripping, riveting tale, filled with battles and intrigue, powerful themes, and lovable characters, as well as terrifying monsters. There was nothing happy-go-lucky about it, but it was great. In short: I loved it!

Servants of War is an upcoming – yes, you read that right: upcoming, courtesy of an advance copy, thank you Baen! – military fantasy novel, the first in a series, The Age of Ravens. However many installments this series has, I want them all!

The story follows in detail only a handful of characters: Illarion Glazkov, a young man whose peaceful life and precious loved ones are ripped bloodily away from him, casting him into the depths of hellish warfare; Natalya Baston, a young woman of special, deadly skill, bound unwillingly in service to a tyrant, desperate to find a way out; Kristoph Vals, a secret policeman and cunning agent of the true power behind the throne, utterly ruthless, patient… and ambitious, especially when he happens upon a key piece of critical information which, if handled properly, could oust a truly evil superior. By twist of fate or the hand of greater powers, these three and their various friends, colleagues, and comrades are bound together in a grand conflict which will determine the outcome of ancient feuds and the course of entire worlds.

I don’t want to spoil too much of a book that has yet to fully come out, but suffice to say I appreciate the world-building behind the story. It’s set in an alternate world, another dimension, which humans accidentally came to and eventually the task of survival gave them dominion of a significant portion. They’ve developed to a point akin to the early 20th century, engaging in trench warfare a’la World War I, but with a few fantastical additions: a wandering people blessed by their gods, religious worship of three goddesses which include Baba Yaga, and an unending war being fought over which of two mighty nations will invade a third and plunder the power of Hebrew-based golem magics. One of these nations, having elevated a heretic wizard to its highest circles, employs the use of metal suits known as Objects, which are animated with magic scavenged from the husks of the golems they want to steal.

There aren’t really any “good” sides in this endless war, not on the mortal or immortal levels. The powers that be include that heretic wizard, a communist tsar, bloodthirsty goddesses who delight in torment and death, and more. But there are good people among the citizens and good comrades in the armies. To stop the cavalier slaughter and mad machinations of these malicious powers, to save the poor humans caught in all the crossfires, is going to require a mighty miracle, and likely several such miracles. For now, though, all people can do is just try to survive and look after those closest to them, as they try to make the best of one of the worst situations imaginable. A simple, and impossible, task.

That is where the appeal of the characters comes in so strongly. Though the authors kill off enough of their characters that one is always a bit afraid for our heroes, one still can’t help but root for sweet, honest Illarion and his brave comrades, and for beautiful Natalya, who just wants to wander the world as her people are meant to. And though I cannot entirely root for Kristoph, I can still thoroughly enjoy the show as he strives to outmaneuver an enemy far worse than himself, with only his wits to rely on. Who among these, and those around them, will live to see the end of this entirely awful conflict? Who, if any, will overcome the impossible and reap the rewards of peace and freedom? That is the most exciting question of all to ask, when you actually care about the characters and have no trustworthy idea of the answer!

As such… well, suffice to say that even though this novel is not entirely available until March 1st of this year, I am already awaiting the next book with eager anticipation! If what I’ve said of it sounds appealing to you, then I highly recommend it!

Rating: 8 stars out of 10. (I subtract one star because… well, I am not entirely immune to being squeamish, and I rather like stories I can safely share with the kids)

Grade: A-Minus.

Posted in Books, Tuesday Review | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #373: Truth Over Lies

“Beware trying to bend the Truth to fit your story instead of facing it head-on… Because the more you bend the Truth to fit a story, the more it turns into Lies without you even realizing it.”
– Lancelot, Quests for Glory
The School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani

When Lancelot says this, he is speaking to a young King Tedros, the son of King Arthur. Lancelot is rather famous for his adulterous affair with Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, and now they are speaking of the rising possibility that Arthur might have been unfaithful to his queen. Lancelot and Guinevere both dismiss this possibility, but Tedros does not dismiss it so easily. He can think of several scenarios where it could have happened, and Lancelot admits each of them could be, but also cautions him against trying to make the Truth fit a narrative instead of simply facing what is true as it is.

The irony here is not only that Lancelot dealt in lies himself, to terrible result, but it turns out the idea of Arthur being unfaithful to Guinevere is more possible than Lancelot realized. He is, at this very moment, doing exactly what he is telling Tedros not to do, bending truth to come to a false conclusion.

The sequel trilogy of The School for Good and Evil deals heavily in the conflict between Truth and Lies, among other things. There are parties which craft an expansive web of careful, cunning lies which are so diabolical and convincing that they seem to turn the truth itself on its head, as piercing the veil of one lie seems to just unveil yet another lie beneath. There are people who lie to themselves, trying to make reality be what they say it is by saying it often enough, thinking it hard enough, and doing it forcibly enough that surely it must be true. Most of all, there are the masses who believe and support the lies because, in the midst of a tumultuous whirlwind of a world, it is more convenient than getting at and standing by the truth, without compromise.

Lies are easy. Truth is hard. Hard to discover and to live by.

And yet, if we do not live by truth, then are we not already broken and ruined?

There are many examples I could point to, but I will refrain, as I do not want to drown my blog in political arguments. I will simply say that many are the lies today which are preached, accepted, and enforced as “true.” Some of these lies are new, and some are very, very old, almost as old as the truths they oppose. Many of them are offered in mixture with truths, couched in soft, charming, flattering terms, couched in convincing charisma. It is so very easy to simply go along with them, at least until they turn and bite us for it. And bite us, they do.

Lies always bite both the liar and the deceived. But none of them change what is true.

No lie ever changed the truth.

The world is a confusing mess, made more so by people who profit by that confusion. All the same, we have to put in the effort, and be cautious of what we take to be true, because that is what we build ourselves on.

Even liars build their lives on what they think is true, that’s how they justify themselves.

But lies are self-consuming, while truth is a foundation we can trust.

Far better to have that sure foundation as the storm of the world bears down on us, no?

Posted in Books, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged , | Leave a comment

DreamWorks: An Animated Countdown

So, there I was, perusing my archive, trying to draw a little inspiration for the future from my blog’s past, and I noticed something.

I have done a favorite movie countdown for Disney’s animated movies. And I did one for Pixar. And I did one for Studio Ghibli, too! Heck, I even did one for Scooby-Doo! But apparently I had yet to do one for DreamWorks! Considering how many animated titles they’ve contributed to my personal library – almost as many as Pixar or Ghibli – this tragic oversight clearly needed to be remedied!

Thus, I present: my top twelve favorite animated movies from DreamWorks Animation!

And if I may just say, as I take a look at most of my picks below, there is a definite trend in these movies about growing, becoming, finding oneself and becoming more certain and comfortable with one’s own identity and one’s place in the world, as well as with one’s family. I find myself very much appreciating that.

12) The Prince of Egypt

Moses the Musical? That’s certainly an interesting direction to go in!

I  remember watching this as a kid. I knew it was altered and sensationalized, much as The Ten Commandments had been, but I still enjoyed it. It was inspiring, uplifting, and dedicated to the spirit of the faith which the Hebrew people had needed at such a low point in their history. And the music was pretty good, too!

However, I’m still a little miffed at what they did with the character of Moses’ brother, Aaron. The man was his spokesperson, for crying out loud! And they made him a muttering semi-antagonist instead? Sheesh! I never did like that.

But I did always love how they crafted a fun little tale of faith, freedom, and self-realization. That was the major difference between Moses and Ramses: Moses found who he truly was and willingly accepted his calling in life, while Ramses’ character was defined by a driving need, to the point of madness, to be what his father dictated that he be. Thus, this one is squarely at the bottom of this countdown, but still had to be included in it.

11) Joseph: King of Dreams

While this depiction of Joseph’s story also departs from the true source material a little, it does not do so nearly as badly as Prince of Egypt. I can forgive most of the deviations, though, not only because it’s simply impossible to stay perfectly aligned, but also because it tells a story that can still resonate with us today. It’s a story of family and forgiveness, and learning to have a little faith.

I suppose this one is so low because it slightly overdid a few well-intentioned things, like the whole thing with the growing tree in the prison set to a song about trusting God. And the entire Egyptian community, noblewomen included, rallying together to plant seeds. That wasn’t exactly necessary. Little things like that made the movie feel a little long and campy, ya know?

Perhaps I am a little demanding of my Bible-based stories?

10) Shark Tale

A twist of fate permits an ambitious, big-mouthed dreamer to get all the things he ever wanted, but he needs to learn that happiness does not come from stuff, but from meaningful, selfless love.

A gentle giant just wants the chance to live a quiet, peaceful life, but his family, especially his overbearing father, does not approve, and when it’s literally a family of sharks, disapproval can be very dangerous.

Skipping over, as movies usually do, the part where predators must eat their prey in order to survive, Shark Tale is a star-studded story about embracing who we are, and who our loved ones are, without shame. I think that’s what I like most about it. A boisterous youth gets humbled and realizes what is most important in life, while a father and son come to understand and acknowledge each other. It’s presented in a fairly silly way, perhaps, but, still, it’s nice.

9) The Croods

Following a family of cavemen, it starts out looking like a story that has become fairly typical: the adventurous, young woman is right and her father is repressive and wrong. But it soon becomes more than that. It is the father, actually, who is the real main character. It is simply that his daughter is the one telling his story.

Again, it’s a story of self-actualization. In this instance, it’s about a man who loves his family and has always done his very best for them. When what he’s always done is no longer good enough, he must slowly learn and become stronger and smarter, a more capable protector and provider for his loved ones.

That’s not bad at all!

8) Flushed Away

A refined, upper class rat finds his home invaded by some grungy, riffraff rat. Being so posh, he can’t simply throw the interloper out on his ear, and when his attempt at deception backfires, he ends up flushed away, down the toilet, all the way to the sewers beneath London! Getting back home is a journey filled with unexpected dangers, enemies, and friends who show him the meaning of courage and nerve, and how lonely he’s really been in his comfort and solitude.

At the end of the day, this is a hilarious hero’s journey which transforms the hero in a meaningful way. He becomes more upfront and honest, with the spine to take and keep what is his and let no one take it away, and, above all, he gains the greatest treasures of love, family, and self-confidence. All of this to the beat of happy rats, amusing slugs, and hilariously villainous frogs.

Favorite moment: when the French frogs are to go into battle. “WE SURRENDER!”

7) Shrek

The prince isn’t charming! And the ogre is the hero! (…I’m fairly certain there was something about the damsel in there, but it’s been twenty years since I last saw that particular teaser trailer)

This was the original movie that turned fairy tales on their heads, and leading was the charmingly unsophisticated ogre himself. He was never ashamed of himself, but he did still wish that people wouldn’t judge him at first glance. As his happy solitude is shattered by the arrival of the unwanted fairy tale creatures, he reluctantly teams up with a mouthy donkey to save a princess with whom he has a surprising amount in common. Along the way, he has to deal with dragons, merry robbers, and a nasty little prince. Emphasis on the “nasty,” and emphasis on the “little.”

It’s a touching, hilarious classic, a pioneer in the art of twisting our fail tales all around, and one of the earlier CGI features, which, it was part of a noticeable push forward in visual quality, but still prioritized a good story.

6) Shrek 2

It was really difficult to place this in relation to the first Shrek. What ultimately nudged the second in above the first is, quite simply, how real it is. It tells us what happens after the first “happily ever after” so to speak, and it’s not all smooth sailing. There’s a lot of work to be done after happiness is gained, and it requires a bit of sacrifice from both husband and wife. Not to mention finding some peaceful coexistence with the in-laws!

I also love how it doesn’t just turn fairy tales on their heads, it outright shows how twisted the whole “love potion” thing is once you think about it. How good can fairy godmothers really be if they’re regularly forcing people to feel love through magical means? That’s something that gets overlooked a lot, how love cannot, should not, and must not be forced, not by any means. It’s a great moment when Shrek dismisses his own insecurities about whether or not he can make Fiona happy the right way, in favor of fighting to protect her free will, to keep her from being made to be “happy” in the wrong way.

And I adore the introduction of Puss in Boots! Absolutely fantastic! 😀

5) Rise of the Guardians

Jack Frost must team up with the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, and a sword-swinging Santa Claus to stop the Boogie Man and save the hopes and dreams of all the children around the world. I remember being on the fence about that idea in general, no matter the star-studded cast, but it turned out to be quite an enchanting magical adventure!

There is a respectable amount of skill, and a surprising amount of grace, in the weaving of the story and its characters. We see each of these legendary figures explored in turn, to show what they mean, what they value, and what they guard. We see who each of them is, and, in turn, we see Jack learn who he, himself, really is, as he discovers his forgotten past. This, as both the guardians and the children they protect rediscover their own strength after being brought low before the encroaching darkness.

It is, simply put, a well-told story with a lot of heart in it.

4) Megamind

We seem to have developed a keen interest in the villains lately. Sometimes we see what makes them evil, and other times we turn them into heroes. Albeit heroes who are even more unorthodox than the usual unorthodox hero. And this one begins with the question… what if the supervillain won?

In the wake of the apparent death of his superhero archenemy, Metro Man, the genius supervillain Megamind must come to grips to with his sudden lack of purpose. Hoping to reclaim the thrill of his previous adventures, he embarks on a plan to create a new enemy, a plan which backfires entirely, even while he grows unexpectedly close to the reporter Roxanne Ritchi. When the woman he loves is threatened by the evil he unleashed, and with no hero in sight, the villain must become the hero he truly is.

Megamind realizes his best self as a hero, while Metro Man secretly retires to live in peace, and the only one left unhappy is the villain, Titan, who looked outwards, to fame, power, and women, for his own self-worth. There’s something deeply meaningful about that which I just can’t help but love watching play out.

3) Kung Fu Panda 2

There is something to be said for finding inner peace. It doesn’t mean that the past did not happen, but it does mean letting go of the stubborn, bitter pain which accompanies it. Of course, first they had to go through the rigmarole of giving Po a painful past that haunts him even when he can’t recall too much of it. But with that accomplished, it sets him up perfectly in opposition to Lord Shen, the peacock who refuses to deal with his pain, choosing to burn the world around him instead.

Adding to this is the question of how a martial artist, even a very powerful one, can remain relevant in a rising new age of guns and industry. That, too, is answered with the power of inner peace. Guns or no, the warrior who is at peace with himself is stronger than the  killer who is not.

And I love how they started developing a relationship between Po and Tigress, the two strongest warriors, albeit strong in different ways.

2) Kung Fu Panda

It was tough judging the two Kung Fu Panda movies which made this countdown, but the first one edges in just a little bit ahead of the second in my opinion. Why? Because the second one is little too much “just because,” and I love how the first one tells everyone, especially that fat guy who everyone digs on, “You have worth. You have something special because you are you.”

Deep down, I think we all crave to be special. To be unique and powerful and worth something. There’s nothing wrong with that desire itself, I think, but as with all desires, they must be held in check, in balance. Po the panda wants it so much that he strives to be his best, most excellent self, even in the face of what he and those around him perceive as his tremendous inadequacies. Contrast that to the villain Tai Lung, who strove not to be his best self, but to be someone else’s definition of special. But the truth is that there is no secret ingredient to being great. It’s just you, and what you choose to be.

I would say that DreamWorks has produced more quality films than most people might realize, but they’ve only produced a two or maybe three masterpieces, of which Kung Fu Panda was the first. Though, it was followed soon enough by another, even better, my number one pick.

1) How to Train Your Dragon

Where can I even begin with this one? The dragons, which aren’t all cute and cuddly creatures, but which are capable of being friends and partners with humans? The father and son relationship which so reminds my father and I of our own, each one doing their best but not quite getting things right for so long? The coming of age story, where a boy becomes greater than anyone, especially himself, truly thought possible? The blossoming coupling with an idolized rival? The menace that threatens man and dragon both, and the epic showdown that makes perfect sense because they set up everything we need to know throughout the movie? The music?!

This might seem like a bit much to say, but I truly feel that How to Train Your Dragon is one of the best masterpieces of animated storytelling ever, bordering on something absolutely transcendent.

I love it!

Posted in Countdowns, Movies, Top Picks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #372: Choosing Now

“You gotta let go of that stuff from the past ’cause it just doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what you choose to be now.”
– Po, Kung Fu Panda 2

Happy New Year, my wonderful audience! I hope it is a good one for us all!

This quote is one of those that is pretty much perfect for a new year celebration, a time where we reflect on and celebrate the past, the present, and the future.

When Po says this, he is speaking to his enemy, Lord Shen.

Shen has tried to know and alter the future, but all he’s done is become a prisoner of the past, his past, which he created with his own hands. Or feathers, I suppose. After all he’s tried to do, he has succeeded only in holding on to his pain, letting it consume him as he burns the world around him. Even his great ambitions and inventions have all come to nothing, everything he’s made now lying broken and in ruin around him. He has, quite simply, failed. And thus he asks, not really wanting to understand but he must ask anyway out of sheer shock, how Po managed to overcome his pain and find the strength of inner peace. The above quote is part of Po’s answer.

For all that Shen tried to master his own fate, he failed to grasp this basic concept: all he had to do was choose differently. That is the power of the present.

Oh, the past may have had the power to shape the present, and multitudes have quivered in the shadow of the future, but it is now – the present, today, this very hour, this exact moment – which holds the greatest power. Whatever has happened in the past, now is when we can leave it all behind. Whatever path we have been on for our entire lives, now is the time when we can depart from it and make a new path for ourselves. Whatever hurts we have known, now is the time which heals us, moment by moment by moment. Whatever burdens we have carried on our souls, now is the time where we can begin to let them go. And whatever doom the future holds for us, now is the hour of hope.

I want to make one important clarification. It’s an obvious one, to me, but better to say it.

Letting go of the past does not mean forgetting it. Neither does it mean failing to learn from it. Indeed, there is no moving beyond the past without learning from it, and that inherently involves remembering it. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, which is exactly the opposite of what we want.

It does not mean forgetting how we have been hurt, or brushing aside the hurts that we have done others. It means accepting that it is what it is, and moving on to do something better. The past will not be changed. It can only be learned from. The application of those lessons is what will make for a better future.

Letting go of the past means letting go of the pain which haunts us long after any injury. That is the only way we can clear our vision and make a different choice.

Ultimately, our choices are the only things which matter. Not what we have, what we gain, or what we lose. Not what happens to us. Only what we do with it. That is what stays with us forever and determines who we are.

The most important choice is the next one.

Or, rather, this one, the one you make right now.

Posted in Movies, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Shifting Tastes: Some Random Musings

I’ve never been much of a horror fan.

Or at least I’ve deliberately refrained from delving into the genre very much. I have nothing whatsoever against anyone who does – like and let like, after all – but I just wasn’t very interested in it. I could appreciate the classic monsters, like Dracula and werewolves, but the scary stories themselves, where it seemed everybody dies, somehow those just didn’t appeal to me. And the blood-soaked slasher films which evolved from the classics have always absolutely repelled me.

Then I started working in the Tutu Warehouse of Doom.

That was what I called it. Not its real name, of course.

I worked as an order filler, going around the warehouse and putting together the orders for our online customers. Nothing wrong with that, but the exact merchandise we carried consisted of costume pieces for little girls. There were tutus, ribbons, fake flowers, fake jewels, fairy wands, fairy wings, fluffy things, colorful rompers, and more. I imagine a number of young girls were delighted, or at least their parents and teachers were, and the busy season certainly kept me hopping, but being constantly surrounded by all the frilly girly stuff was bound to have some sort of effect on me.

It was during my time there that my taste in entertainment, as if of its own volition, seemed to just sort of… slide… in the direction of horror.

A standout example would be my favorite horror anime, Shiki, but I believe there were such titles as Moon Phase, Black Blood Brothers, and Dance in the Vampire Bund, too. And it wasn’t just anime. I never got up the nerve to watch some of the horror titles my best friend repeatedly recommended, such as The Crow, but I quite suddenly found myself perusing a number of summaries on Wikipedia. Summaries which make me quite glad that I didn’t actually watch Jennifer’s Body, The House of the Devil, or The Hills Have Eyes. And make no mistake, it is for similar reasons which I immediately dropped Parasyte, Blood-C, and Terra Formars.

Some horror stories may have been welcomed in, but not even the endless ocean of tutus, flowers, and ribbons could make me eager to watch such horrific, unmitigated bloodbaths. Though Attack on Titan managed to sneak in somehow.

Why do I share all of this?

Because it’s been on my mind lately, how our personal tastes in entertainment can shift and change without us ever intending it. It happens slowly, usually, but it happens.

I did not like horror at all, with arguable exception to Buffy.

Then I worked at the Tutu Warehouse of Doom.

And my tastes changed on me.

It happens, though, doesn’t it?

I remember watching Power Rangers as a kid.

That was long enough ago that I’m talking about the original Power Rangers, with Rita Repulsa, Lord Zedd, the Machine Empire, and so forth. It drove my sisters nuts when I had control of the remote, and during our many arguments they assured me that I would grow out of it. I, of course, was determined to prove them wrong, to not grow out of liking and even adoring the Power Rangers. Because at that age – and in this age – whatever latest thing I was watching had to be the best thing ever! As if, even then, we weren’t allowed to like or dislike something just because. We had to tie ourselves up in it. Either we were right or we were somehow lacking, like the fans of boy bands, like Marvel and DC fans, like all manner of fandom gatekeepers, like sports fans with their teams, and like Republicans and Democrats.

There’s a whole aside we could go into about stubbornness, but the point is that I was stubborn. I stubbornly held on to my childish enjoyment of childish shows like Power Rangers, ThunderCats, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and more. Boy, did I try to hold on. Even when I knew, and felt, that something was lacking. Even when things seemed to start feeling boring, or campy, or ridiculous, I held on.

Then, as happens with life, I was forced to grow up. Bit by bit, day by day, one ordeal after another, I left behind the child I had been and became an adult.

Now, although I still cherish the time and the memories and everything they taught me, I look back at childish cartoons and… well, I find them childish. Not necessarily in a “bad” way, just in a way where they are obviously geared towards a younger, more innocent and unknowing audience. Which will utterly drive an adult or teenager mad.

Now, when I talk about things that the entire family can enjoy together, I am, in fact, referring to things which both children and adults can enjoy together, if also in the slightly different ways which result from slightly different perspectives.

I enjoyed Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

Then I grew up.

Now, I don’t.

Super respect is owed, by the way, to the people who craft kids’ shows that somehow manage to strike some sort of balance which at least can avoid annoying the adults in the room, I say.

As I can look back, now, and see that things which have happened in my life have altered my tastes, altering what I enjoy and how, I have to wonder a bit about my present state.

I mean, most kids shows were ushered out of my interests simply because I grew up, and thus evolved what I demand from shows in general. But horror is now welcomed in, at least partially, because of my experience in the Tutu Warehouse of Doom. It was like something in my brain was seeking some sort of balance, some counterweight against that of ribbons and tutus, which can get quite heavy when you put enough of them together.

My tastes, what I need, want, and enjoy, changed in response to my experiences.

So what do my present tastes say about what I am needing in my life?

I’ve not reviewed many anime lately, but what do the last several anime I’ve reviewed, the ones which satisfied me enough to immediately write about, all have in common?

Skipping past Castlevania, which isn’t really anime and which I reviewed because it was Halloween time, my last five anime reviews are….

A Dragon Goes House-Hunting.

Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle.

By the Grace of the Gods.

The Helpful Fox Senko-san.

And How Heavy Are the Dumbbells You Lift?

Do you notice anything?

None of them have a particular amount of stress involved.

They’re all about smiles, heart-warming laughter, feeling good, and living one’s own best life.

Now, these are not, by a very long stretch, the only anime I’ve watched in the last two years. But these are the ones that stirred up such feeling that I had to write about them at once. Then again, they’re also the ones that I’ve not been waiting around for successive seasons to finish up on. I say as I cast a slightly nasty eye towards the likes of Tsukimichi, Jobless Reincarnation, one about a reincarnated assassin, and others. But the point still stands.

Though I imagine I would have enjoyed these five anime anyway, I feel that I enjoyed them more now than I would have otherwise. My tastes have shifted on me yet again. And looking at them, it’s no great puzzle why.

I have lately felt all but consumed by a number of frustrations. I have been frustrated with myself, with the life I lead, with my many, many, many failures. I have been frustrated with the state of the world, how so much of it is going mad, to the detriment of good, honest, sane people. I am frustrated with my powerlessness, with my lot in life, and with dreams that I have never fulfilled.

Small wonder I seem to have gravitated with such strength towards stories that make me laugh and smile. Small wonder I can so fully appreciate anime which are basically about the simple act of living, without the weight of the world crushing in.

I liked such feel-good anime, and then I lived the last several years of my life, and now I love them.

I loved the Power Rangers, and then I grew up.

I hated horror, and then I worked at the Tutu Warehouse of Doom.

My tastes have changed. Because I have changed. Because of the many things which I have experienced in my life.

It’s a simple thing. Yet somehow it feels… profound?

I wonder how my life will change me and my tastes in the future.

Are they changing right now?

Posted in Anime and Cartoons, Discussion, Miscellaneous, Movies, TV Shows | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Man Who Re-Invigorated Christmas

Shakespeare in Love. Finding Neverland. Saving Mr. BanksBecoming Jane.

There lately seems to be a trend developing where we not only tell our most favorite stories, but we tell of the storytellers as well. Perhaps we’ve simply come to a point where we cherish these beloved classics so much that we want to know the stories behind the stories. Personally, I’ve not been very interested in any of them. I mean, I’ll admit to holding a secret hope for some depiction of Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, but that’s an exception because I read his biography in middle school. Perhaps, as a would-be storyteller myself, I rather shudder at the thought of how people might depict me in such a story. It inspires a feeling that is strangely embarrassing, frightening, and critical: embarrassing to have such praise and notoriety, such interest in my history and private life; frightening to have so many eyes picking over my many flaws and mistakes, so many things of which I am ashamed; critical of the inevitable errors which would be made in any such depiction of me.

So, though I was given The Man Who Invented Christmas by my wonderful mother last year, it was not until this year that I actually sat down, with some trepidation, to watch it.

…all right, all right, I admit: I loved it, and enjoyed it very much.

Scrooge: You will never make that deadline! Dickens: WATCH ME!

The story follows the famous author’s journey as he wrote what is probably his single most beloved and enduring classic, A Christmas Carol. It’s not that he simply sat down and wrote it, after all, in one God-given burst of inspiration, and everything went smoothly without so much as a bump or a ripple. No, the writing process – as any writer knows – is grueling, demanding work. The composition of prose, of putting things which did not exist onto a page where they might then exist within the mind and heart of the reader, is no easy task, not even for a master of the craft. It demands the highest activities of an enlivened mind, a disciplined dedication to the work, an eager willingness to plumb the depths of one’s very soul, and, of course, the time and energy required to sit down and write. It is among the most richly fulfilling efforts in the whole of mankind, but dang if it ain’t hard work! And that’s just the writing! There’s dealing with publishers, artists, advertisers, the audience, coughing up the cash to get started, and so much more. And all this, in the time of Dickens and all those great masters of great tales in centuries past, without the benefits of a computer or a typewriter or anything beyond pens, paper, and quills.

Oh, and then there’s all the other pressures of life: of actually being there for one’s friends and family, no matter the complications of personal issues, of dealing with critics galore whose every word can either fillet or fulfill one’s efforts, of running a household with only so much money to go around, and of being the best possible person one can be.

All of this, I will say, is depicted very well. And from what I know (and researched) of Dickens’ real-life history, they really did draw upon significant events in the actual man’s life to craft this narrative, which is no small feat. Even more, they bound them up with the creation of A Christmas Carol to craft a narrative which is both riveting and inspiring, with both author and story inspiring one another as well as the audience. That is no small achievement.

There are some liberties taken, of course. No story about someone real can ever escape that entirely. And given that Dickens himself used real people from his life, with some additions and exaggerations, to populate his stories, I imagine he would forgive the same being done with his own character, at least as far as it aids in the delivery of the story’s meaning and weight. Still, while I know everyone has their own personal demons, I doubt those of Charles Dickens were quite the same ones which this movie depicts. It leaves me slightly torn, like… would I want my real or fake personal demons shown on the big screen, and would it serve the purpose of the story?

Setting that aside, however, I find that this movie simply tickles my heart, makes me smile as I watch Dickens draw inspiration from everywhere – as he truly did and as many storytellers do – and warms my soul in a manner not too dissimilar to the story he crafted. I do prefer A Christmas Carol itself, but, well, this doesn’t fall too far behind.

And apart from the story itself – or stories themselves – a great deal of time and effort went into every technical aspect of this movie, and it shows. The sets, costumes, cinematography, music, it all works splendidly well to show us an 18th century London as well as a man who is walking through it and his dreams interchangeably as he writes one of the best stories in our history. I can have nothing but the highest compliments for such fine work.

All in all, I found The Man Who Invented Christmas to be an amazing exploration of one of mankind’s greatest storytellers, and an absolute delight to watch. Top marks, I say! Top marks!

Rating: a beaming 10 stars out of 10!

Grade: a solid A-Plus!

“He says it’s well done!”

Posted in Movies, Tuesday Review | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #371: Keep it With You

“I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.”
– Ebeneezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol
By Charles Dickens

Scrooge says this when he faced with the reality of his future, of Christmases yet to come where he will not be there and will not be missed. Having faced the reality of himself, of his pain, regret, anger, spite, sorrow, and fear, he is brought to his knees, his icy heart broken open, and in all sincerity he swears to mend his ways, starting with Christmas. He strove for much of his life to keep his heart shut tightly against it, but now he welcomes it in with the fervor of a soul coming upon an oasis in the desert. He clings to the holiday and everything it means, everything it teaches, never letting it from his heart ever again, but kept and cherished within the deepest vaults and sanctuaries of his spirit.

That is the real challenge, isn’t it? To keep the holiness of holy days with us forever, no matter the rough and tumbles of life in a harsh, demanding world.

It’s not easy to keep Christmas with us, nor the spirit of any other holiday, of New Year’s, Valentine’s, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Independence, Memorial, and Veteran’s Day, and many more. They all have lessons to teach us, lessons which the cacophony of the world seems eager to drown out in a kaleidoscope of distractions, in thundering wars of ideas, in the weight of unending bills that must be paid, and in the struggle to survive which only ends with the silence of the grave.

No, it’s not easy to always remember what any given holiday teaches us. It’s not easy to live by those teachings every minute of every day. It’s not easy to always be our best selves.

It’s not easy at all.

But it’s worth it.

For we will be paid with joy, a boundless happiness harvested from our own actions and attitudes, a deep and abiding satisfaction with ourselves and our choices that will make all the pleasures and poisons and wonders of the world as nothing but fleeting whispers by comparison.

Merry Christmas again, everybody. And a Happy New Year! May it be one where every day is filled with all the good that the holidays do us, as we keep them in our hearts.

Posted in Books, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged , | Leave a comment