The Grim Company

I stumbled upon Luke Scull’s The Grim Company completely by accident. A friend I had met at GenCon two year’s back was talking about books he enjoyed on Facebook. One of the books he mentioned was The Grim Company. his description of the book made it sound interesting. I respected his taste in media so I thought I would give it a shot.

I was not disappointed.

The Grim Company falls into the category of Grimdark fantasy. The heroes of this genre are no shining stars that are held up as role models to the populace. Victories are few and far between and come at great cost. My initial experience with the genre was with Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire and I was looking forward to trying more in this vein.

From my previous posts, you should know I am a sucker for any story that involves the gods. The Grim Company takes place in a world where the gods were destroyed by mage-lords. They killed the gods and in so doing, broke the world. The remaining mage lords squabble to control the remaining magic in a world that is slowly dying.

I was all in from that point on.

The Grim Company follows several threads.

There is Davarus cole, a young man with ideas about what it means to be a hero. His head is filled with romantic ideas of becoming a hero to his city yet lacks the steel necessary to do what is truly necessary. Brodar Kayne is an aging barbarian from the north. He is fleeing a past that haunts him still and struggling with a sense of honor that could easily get him killed. Eremul is a mage that has been maimed. He is the only mage remaining in a city that killed all mages that were not sworn to the mage lord. The price for this survival was his legs and his dignity. Barandas is the high augmentor and lead servitor of Salazar, the mage lord. He believes himself to be a good and just man but that to be good, one must be strong and do what other men will not. Last but not least is Ylandris, sorceress of the High Fangs. She lives in the land that Brodar has fled and seeks a path to power for herself so that she will no longer be powerless.

 

As I worked through the Grim Company, I had a niggling doubt that this many characters would become unwieldy or cumbersome. Scull proved my doubts unnecessary as he weaves the various stories of these  characters together deftly. Each change of point of view builds upon the last so that the layers of grit, grime, and heartache prepare you for whatever comes next. Scull also masterfully maintains the tension throughout The Grim Company. As we follow each character, their story and personality become clearer. There history grows heavier and heavier with each revelation. Each step forward in their adventure is fought for with blood, sweat, and agony. Scull takes the time to give both the characters and the reader time to come up for air and see the light that is still present in the world. It may not be bright, shining like the sun but it is still light.

These characters that Scull has created are magnificent. Each one is fleshed out as we push forward on this marathon to the crescendo. Davarus is a good example of this craftsmanship. He is the quintessential fantasy hero in that he wants to save the world so that he will bathed in admiration. Scull highlights the shallowness of this idea and the narcissism of Davarus as he pursues this dream. The journey of Davarus as he learns more about himself, being a hero, and the nature of the world is both hard to watch and inspiring at the same time. Scull doesn’t sugarcoat the process of redemption and recovery and shows both the pain and the pleasure inherent in the process.

One of the things that really stands out for me in this book is Eremul. In fantasy of any stripe, a differently-abled character is rare. When they are presented, magic is presented as a way around their difficulties minimizing these problems. Scull doesn’t do this. He shows us the daily difficulties and indignities that Eremul faces. he also shows us both the strengths that are present in the man while not shying away from the flaws. Scull shows us a person, not a caricature or token to be pitied. He is my second favorite character of the book.

I loved the Grim company and getting ready for the last book in the trilogy. If you love grimdark fantasy or are new to the genre, I recommend picking up The Grim Company. The world will capture your attention and the characters will force you to want to know more about them

Four bear paws out of four! I bearly recommend this book!

Three Parts Dead

I’ve had several people I know mention Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. Their recommendations have been that it is something that I would enjoy. It took some time before I added it to my Audible playlist and began listening whilst working out.

This book is so good!

I will endeavor to keep this review spoiler-free so that you can enjoy the twists and turns of this excellent story.

The premise of the book is that a god has died. The church has called upon the firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao to resurrect their fallen deity and discover the cause of his death. Tara Abernathy is a young craftswoman who has just been recruited into the firm by her boss, Elayne Kevarian. These two must hit the ground running as the city of Alt Coulumb will cometo a disastrous end if they do not succeed.

This description had me hooked. I am a sucker for a story that involves gods. Three Parts Dead not only involved the death of a god, but his resurrection. I was all in.

Gladstone has created a world that is rich in detail and layered in history. Instead of large patches involving Basil Exposition, He doles out the information through the development of the characters of the story. As we learn more and more about each of the players upon the game field, we learn more about the world that they inhabit. This gives the world of they inhabit a greater level of intimacy. It is one thing to know how the college of craft works and another to learn about these things as they relate to Tara’s struggles with the ever mounting problems of a deicide and keeping her job. I love this as it allows gladstone to show the reader the small ways that this world both reflects our own as well as wildly diverges.

I love the world that he has created. It blends tropes from urban fantasy, steampunk, and epic fantasy into a world that is both understandable and alien at the same time. There are skyscrapers built from steel and glass that tower next to buildings of commensurate size crafter by magic. The streets are packed with carts and carriages but there are trains that zip along elevated tracks and driverless horse and buggies where the horse knows where you want to go. This same city that seems so cosmopolitan still has town criers that spread the news by moving street to street singing about the news from far off places. The news is neither timely or relevant to all involved but the city lacks the capabilities of cities not ran by a church and powered by a god.

One of the things that stands out to me is that Gladstone has created a fantasy story that has strong, well-crafted, female protagonists. Tara, the newest addition to the firm takes responsibility for her own actions and works hard to achieve her goals. All the while we get to watch as she struggles with the choices that have to be made in her chosen profession and watch as she makes the changes that she sees as necessary based on the path that she wishes to be on. Cat provides us with the other side of the coin. She struggles to find her path and meaning in this world. She leans on various things as a way to fill that emptiness in her soul. Her path is treated as just as real and noteworthy as that of Tara and Elayne.

I enjoy how Three Parts Dead takes the time to deal with deeper questions as well. The story follows the investigation of the death of a god. His city is dependent on his existence and without action the city will descend into chaos. As Tara, Elayne, and Cat follow the threads of the story, the questions of the usefulness of gods in the modern world is constantly toyed with. As we follow these characters we watches as they deal with this question as well as that of finding meaning in one’s life, self-determinations, consent, bigotry, and other weighty topics. They are handled in such a manner as to not be preachy and to arise organically from the world in which these characters strive.

I want to go on and on about the magic of this world, how the gods interact with their followers, how Tara and Elayne work together. The problem is that discovering all these things are what makes this such a great book.

So, I will reign in my need to gush and leave you with this. Max Gladstone has created wonderful characters in a fascinating world. The story sucks you in and takes you down a path that leaves you wanting more. You should pick up Three Parts Dead and take the journey with Elayne, Tara, and Cat and discover what happened to the god of Alt Coulumb.

Four bear paws out of four! I bearly recommend this book!

Stiletto

I enjoy urban fantasy that mixes spy tropes with supernatural powers and mysterious phenomena. I will give these types of books a chance whenever possible. Daniel O’Malley provides this in Stiletto.

Stiletto picks up the story of Myfanwy Thomas from the first book in the series, The Rook. Myfanwy has successfully survived the attempt to take over the Checquy, Britain’s covert supernatural ministry. She now must negotiate the merger of the Checquy with their most hated enemy, the Grafters.

Stiletto follows three characters through the story to provide a fresh perspective on this unique world created by O’Malley.

There is Felicity whom is a pawn in a combat operations team. Her power is the ability to extended her awareness into the past or through an object. She has been trained to use her psychometry on behalf of her country as well as to be able to handle herself in a fight. She, like all pawns of the Checquy has been raised to fear and hate the Grafters and wonders when the ball will drop and she will be called on with others to attack their one-time invaders.

Odette is a young Grafter who is a protege of the founder of the group. She is a skilled surgeon, geneticist, and all around scientist. Odette has been enhanced through the science of the Grafters to be an even better surgeon as well as stronger and better able to defend herself via retractable claws that drip poison. Odette has learned to keep herself hidden and adopted a paranoid approach to life as all Grafters are taught that the Checquy will kill them if they are discovered.

This leaves us with Myfanwy. She is a Rook of the Checquy whose power is the ability to control the bodies of anyone within 200 feet of her. Her job entails overseeing the activities of the ministry here at home. This means she is still picking up the pieces of the failed coup and organizing the merger of these two groups that hate each other.

Stiletto has everything I love about urban fantasy. There are strange powers that range from just being able to change how a person smells to being able to throw green flames at an enemy. The Grafters provide the addition of super-science as they have turned the art of alchemy into the science of genetic manipulation and control of the various life forms. They adjust themselve and animals to do things beyond the natural. I particularly like how O’Malley blends in the covert aspects of spy fiction into this world as both the Checquy and the Grafters struggle to keep themselves from the public eye. I especially love how the arm of the Checquy that deals with disinformation is called the liars.

Stiletto has plenty of action and suspense but truly shines in it’s worldbuilding and relationships. O’Malley has created these two organizations and given us a glimpse of why they hate each other so much. Here, he allows these characters to tell us the stories that has kept fear and hatred alive for centuries. We get to know Felicity and Odette as they struggle to go through the day with each other despite having been taught that the other person is the enemy and should be destroyed. As they struggle to get through the days of the negotiations and unravel the mysteries surrounding the threats presented to this union, we get to know two strong and likeable women. O’Malley gives them such life and personality that it is difficult to not like either of them. They are imperfect creatures that struggle with the fear and hatred and provide an excellent reflection of how this happens in reality and the path out of this loop.

O’Malley takes the time in Stiletto to delve more into the world that surrounds these characters. He does so in a fashion that feels less like exposition but adds to the tension that is building in the story. In particular, I like how we get to know more about the critical battle that sets these two organizations at odds. It, like most battles, starts with one man’s desire for more power and control. The Grafters, eager to show off their prowess, comply with the a request for weapons that could improve the standing of their country. The resulting invasion results in atrocities that leave wounds that are never allowed to heal and passed down the generations on both sides. As the story progresses we get to see the consequences of those past actions played out in the present.

I love this book!

It has solid characters that are easy to love. The villains are not cardboard cutouts but fully fleshed individuals with understandable motivations. He populates his world with diverse characters that are flawed yet trying to do better. It is also the second book in the series and I did not feel like I needed to have read the first book to enjoy this one. I would still pick up the first book, The Rook, and read it as it is wonderful as well and will increase you enjoyment of Stiletto.

So, I give Stiletto four bear paw out of four! Definitely worth your time and money. I can not wait for the next installment in the series.

I bearly recommend it!

 

Love is Love

IDW and DC Comics collaborated with many comic creators to produce a graphic novel whose proceeds would go to benefit the victims, survivors, and the families of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando earlier this year.

I tweeted about my strong emotions around this book and Aron from Funnybooks with Aron and Paulie & Ideology of Madness reached out and asked me to do a review for them. Aron along with the folks over at Zero Fortitude gave me my start at writing on the internet and I will be forever grateful to them for giving me the chance to write for them

I said yes, of course.

The episode is out now and you can find it here. Go give it a listen and let me know what you think. Show them some love while there and peruse their backlist of podcast episodes. You will not be disappointed.

Passengers

Spoiler Warnings On!

 

The trailer for Passengers sucked me.

The idea of a generation ship suffering some mishap in space and two people being left to face the darkness and the catastrophe alone is an intriguing idea to me. I have read many stories with this premise. I wanted to see Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence walk around in this type of story.

Passengers provides this story as a backdrop but not the central idea. Pratt and Lawrence are passengers on a generation ship that has suffered catastrophe. The question that is asked is not how do you repair a ship with limited tools but what would you do when you are faced with dying alone out in the darkness.

So, going into Passengers, you are expecting sci-fi action and adventure and are given romance with a touch of soul searching. I am not averse to romance but was not expecting it here.

Pratt and Lawrence, as usual, give excellent performances. Pratt plays Jim Preston. Preston is a mechanic and an engineer who has left earth to find something that he can fix and build. Lawrence plays Aurora Lane, a write seeking to leave the shadow of a famous father and tell her own story. There is no way for these two to not have chemistry on the screen. They move with ease through the simple story they are given and allow the few times that the scripts tries to transcend to shine through.

The cinematography and effects are solid as well. The way that shots are handled both capture the futuristic feeling of the setting while also highlighting the isolation and alienation that such a trip would entail. There are points in the story where Preston is truding through a year alone on the ship and the shots and how they are woven together illustrates the descending madness of facing one’s demise alone and and unmarked can do to someone.

The movie is problematic for me when it comes to this choice moment. Preston is contemplating suicide rather than die alone. He makes a choice and begins researching other passengers. He chooses Aurora and then takes the time to choose whether to consign her to the same fate or live alone.

He makes the choice to have her join him. Thus begins the romance. Pratt is an excellent awkward lothario and the wooing is worth watching on the screen. The problem for me is that this is a horrible choice and Lane’s death is sealed without her consent. the secret comes out and the consequences are there but are impermanent. The ship must be repaired with death on the line. In that moment where Lane could lose Preston, she chooses to want him with all her heart. Lane chooses her murderer/lover and chooses to not die estranged from another human.

Passengers chooses to make normal this horrible decision. It follows the standard romance trope of love conquering all and the woman choosing to take the man back to not feel unfulfilled. It makes my skin crawl.

The writer, Jon Spaihts, could have done better. At minimum, the roles could have been gender flipped. Lane could have been the mechanic that was accidentally awoken by the accident that befell the ship. This would not make the choice any less icky but would have definitely flipped the power dynamic and making for a more interesting exploration of this moral dilemma. The moral dilemma could have been explored more as well. We get a montage of Preston working up to making the decision but the weight of the decision never settles. I wanted to see the weight of that secret come to bear as it was a beat that was left unheard.

We also get a brief flash of another person on the ship as Gus Mancuso, played by Laurence Fishburne, is awoken. He is underutilized as he serves as a tool to give the two a way to survive the ship’s problems as well to highlight what it means to die on this ship with others around you. He even has a line for Lane when she brings up that Preston consigned her to death to make it easier to forgive him. “The drowning man doesn’t mean to drowned you, he just doesn’t want to drowned.”

I was entertained by Passengers despite the problems. I wish it had made some effort to be something other than a standard romance. Exploring the central question and avoiding the common tropes of the genre would have made this a much better movie.

Two bear paws out of four. Worth watching when it comes to Netflix.

 

Rogue One

Spoiler warnings on.

 

I loved Rogue One.

It hits the same beats for me that made Empire Strikes Back my favorite Star Wars movie.

First off, the movie is gorgeous. It blends practical effects with CGI in a way that draws you into the movie. The opening scenes are just one example. We jump to the planet that is the home of Erso’s. The CGI of the planet from space is breathtaking as one would expect. When the camera brings us the the planet’s surface, the choice of location provides us with setting that is both familiar and alien all at once. The added effects of the farm that Galen Erso has constructed are sparse but build up this idea of an alien sanctuary far from the battles raging across the stars. The Imperial shuttle cuts the sky like an implacable shark intent on it’s prey.

This type of scene is repeated throughout the movie as we follow our erstwhile heroes. The vistas presented are varied and each adds another layer to the scope of tapestry that is the war for the soul of the galaxy. I liked that we are given so many different places. It gives the story both the room to move around as well as lending an grand scale to a story of just a few people.

I love the characters that we are given in Rogue One as well.

Four stood out for me in particular. First was Cassian Andor. In Cassian, we are given an agent of the rebellion that has done many dark things in the name of what he believes in. These things aren’t just stories that he tells us, as we get to see him sacrifice a contact in cold blood to ensure his escape to pursue a lead on Galen Erso. The audience gets to watch as he struggles with executing orders that would have him kill again in order to try and protect the rebellion from the weapon that has been created.

Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus are a pair that are found by the heroes on Jedha. These two are the last defenders of a temple that has long since fallen. They are like paladins adrift with nothing to defend and no cause to champion. They are adherents of the force yet not jedi themselves. One still firmly believes in the force while the other trusts in his weapons and his friend. Despite not being a jedi, Chirrut’s expertise with the staff despite his blindness provides us with a character that is force sensitive without needing a jedi. His mantra, “I am one with with force and the force is with me.” is an immediate classic for me. The relationship between the two is also an interesting aside. They present a close relationship between two men without it feeling forced, stereotypical, or sexual. They are just two men whom are best friends and normalizes this type of relationship without any of the macho overtones one would expect.

Finally, there is K-2SO. He is a reprogrammed imperial droid voice by Alan Tudyk. He provides a dose of comedy in what could easily be a dark and brooding movie. Unlike C-3PO, his statements are plucked from the minds of the audience and given voice on the screen. In once scene, Jyn has “acquired” a blaster. K-2SO’s response to this is succinct. “Why is she allowed to have a blaster?” When the decision is made to allow her to keep the blaster, K2 quips, “Would you like to know the odds of her using the blaster on you? They’re high…very high.” Hilarious! and yet, despite being a droid, K-2SO sucks you in with that cutting personality and a soul housed in the machine.

The wonderful and horrible thing about these characters is that they suck you in and make you care about them. You connect with them despite knowing how this ends. And even knowing where this movie goes, Each death is a punch in the gut that leaves you misty-eyed and sad to watch their passing. When K-2SO locked Cassian and Jyn inside the vault so they could continue searching for the plans as his systems failed under the assault, I had tears in my eyes.

I also enjoyed the two appearances of Lord Vader in Rogue One. Both are short but highlight the malevolence and power that is Darth Vader. First we meet Vader in his fortress. The Administrator of the the death star has come in search of his lost power. He provides a report on the capabilities of the weapon and asks to be given control of the station as Vader leaves. The audience gets to watch as the iconic force choke begins and vader states that administrator should, “Be careful not to choke on his aspirations.” The next we see of vader is at the end of the movie cutting his way through rebel soldiers to get to the plans on the flagship of the rebel fleet. He is too late and we get to see him watch as leia’s ship streaks off into the darkness.

Badass!

I am not blind though. I know the movie has problems. The plot is straightforward and ending is telegraphed. There are bits that were wonderful in the trailer but are never seen on the screen, such as the iconic, “This is a Rebellion, I rebel.” The CGI Tarkin quickly descends into the uncanny valley, especially given how much screen time this character gets in Rogue One. This character is only outdone by the CGI princess leia that just looked weird and felt even more wrong.

Despite these things, Rogue One takes it’s place as my second favorite Star Wars movie. It echoes the things I loved in Empire Strikes back and gives me characters that I come to love and mourn their passing each time I see it on the screen. Definitely four bear paws out of four!

I bearly recommend it!

 

Volo’s Guide to Monsters

dnd_trpg_volosguidetomonsters_alt_coverIf you have been in the table top roleplaying game scene for awhile, you will have come accross the Monster Manual. It is a mainstay of Dungeons and Dragons and iterates itself across the fantasy genre like a zombie plague from patient zero.

They follow a format that is predictable and leaves one only looking forward to seeing what the artists were able to do with their orders. The variations are organized around settings or play style but rarely provide a book that is enjoyable and satisfying.

Volo’s Guide to Monsters takes a step outside of the lines to try something a little different.

The conceit of the book is that it is a collection of information on the various creatures of the realms gathered by the inveterate adventurer and writer Volothamp Geddarm.

Volo to his friends.

Scattered throughout the book are observations on the various beasts and ecologies from Volo and his longtime friend, Elminster. The tips range from useful ideas for how the creatures could be used in the game to humorous asides on how interactions with the aforementioned creatures went awry.

The change is presentation is refreshing.

The book opens up with a section that talks about the ecologies of several monsters from previous monster manuals. The very first entry deals with an iconic creature of Dungeons & Dragons, The Beholder. The reader is treated to an analysis of how the creature operates and the reasons behind the behaviors that they display. The description of a creature that sees itself as superior to everything, always aware, and yet in a constant state of fear for something trying to come take what it has is interesting. It takes a monster that you drop into a room without thought and gives it a a background and a purpose that is both entertaining and a useful guide in using it in play.

This section covers a large amount of ground in regards to creatures that are ubiquitous in D&D campaigns. In particular, the information presented on the Gnolls and Illithid is enlightening and entertaining. With the gnolls, Their behavior as slavering monster that ravage the countryside is put in the context of being creations and devotee’s of Yeenoghu. Their being is suffused with the savagery and hunger derived from the depths of the Abyss. Rational thought is something that is difficult for the ordinary gnoll to maintain. The illithid are painted as dimensional refugees that have fled their slaves who have risen up to destroy those that had used them so cruelly. Each story provides both hooks to add these creatures into your story, explanations as to why they behave the way they do, and collects information that has been spread over several tomes in previous editions of Dungeons and Dragons.

This book also collects several new options for races for Player characters. In this edition of D&D, player character race options have been few outside of one or two presented in the appendices of adventures. The addition of them here seems a much more natural fit. The options for player characters is increased by seven.  The authors have brought back another favorite of mine from Fourth edition, the Goliath as well as adding in more exotic choices with the Tabaxi, cat people, and Tritons. This section also adds in rules for handling goblins and other monsters as player characters as well. This is something I always like to have as an option and am glad to see it included in this book.

The rest of the book presents more monsters for use in the game as well as collecting a series of NPCs for quick use of any game master. They are exactly what one expects from a book of monsters.

The book itself is gorgeous.

I picked up the special edition which has a black cover with an Illithid on the front and back cover. The book is full color throughout like the previous books for D&D with new artwork throughout. It weighs in at 224 pages with a retail price of $49.95.

Volo’s Guide to Monsters is an excellent addition to the Dungeons and Dragons Library. It goes off script for a Monster Manual and gives the reader a much better read and a much more useful tool. My only quibble is that for $49.95 I expect a bit more page count. Despite this, it is a definite must have for any fan of D&D.

Four out of Four bear paws.

 

Moana

moanaWhen I learned about Disney’s new movie releasing over the Thanksgiving Holiday, I was sold. Moana was based on Polynesian mythology and features songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Nothing else need be said.

I love mythology. It was my one of the first kind of books I checked out of the school library as a child. I am woefully uneducated on the mythology of the polynesian cultures and Moana provides an good introduction to the subject.

I have also become a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. I listen to the soundtrack several times a week, if not more. The songs he crafted for this show are just wonderful and echo in my head long after I have stopped listening to them physically.

The combination of these things I love is just priceless.

I had my concerns going into Moana, as Disney does not have the best track record at handling these types stories with sensitivity. Pocahontas being the case in point. I can not claim to be fully aware of complaints regarding the sensitivity to the cultural issues that are presented in Moana. If you hear of concerns from polynesian people, make sure to listen as they are better informed than I.  If you stay through to the end credits you will notice a long line of cultural references that Disney utilized to do better in Moana, and it appears to me to show on screen.

Outside of being predisposed to loving this movie for the subject matter and the musical pedigree, Moana is wonderful.

Moana is the daughter of the chief. Moana is supposed to take up her father’s position and lead her people into the future. We quickly learn that her what she is supposed to do and what is necessary are two different things. As a toddler, Moana’s grandmother shares with her the creation myth of the islands. She tells of how the mother island created all the things in the sea and then settle down to sleep. She tells of how Maui sought the mother’s heart to take the powers of creation for himself and in so doing, unleashed a darkness upon the sea.

We get to watch as Moana grows up striving to embrace the role that is set out for her yet still enraptured by the call of the ocean. She struggles to live up to the expectations of her parents while still listening to the songs and teachings of her grandmother. When the effects of the darkness finally encroach upon her island, Moana questions her grandmother and is shown the history of her people that has been hidden. Moana learns that they had been a people that had explored the ocean at great length but had stopped once the voyagers stopped returning. To save her family, and her people, Moana trusts in herself and takes to the sea to find Maui and return the heart to the mother island.

I love that we get a Disney Princess that sets out upon the hero’s journey. I love that Moana keeps moving forward despite the pressure from her father, her people, and Maui telling her that this is something that she can not do. I love that we get to watch as Moana learns the art of Wayfinding from Maui and then use that mastery to overcome the last guardian on her journey. One of the funniest moments for me is when Moana is arguing with Maui on her canoe and he calls her a princess. He walks through a checklist of things that make this so and it is hilarious yet accurate for a Disney Princess.

I mentioned the Lin-Manuel Miranda earlier and would be remiss in talking about the songs. I can hear his hand in each song that is given voice. These songs range from the pop style of “Shiny” sung by the villainous crab to the rap done by Dwayne Johnson entitled “You’re welcome.” Mix into these excellent pieces songs that blend english and Tokelauan language lyrics to create wondrous soundscapes that flow with the animation. A veritable treasure trove of songs that kids and adults alike will be singing for a long time to come.

There were a few things that stood out for me in particular in Moana. I loved that Maui’s tattoos told a story and were themselves alive. They both showed the story of Maui and held him to a higher standard than he himself sometimes adhered too. This was a unique approach to the tattoos and held up the idea that they were badges of honor that sometimes the wearer may fall short of. I also loved that one of the bosses that Moan faced were coconut pirates. They were both cute and fierce and allowed Moana to show her capabilities to their full extent fairly quickly in the movie. They are memorable without overshadowing the main characters which is a delicate balance to achieve. I also loves Hei Hei, the chicken. This is the animal sidekick that Maui talks about and is one of the funniest yet dumbest animal sidekicks in Disney history.

you should definitely see Moana in the theater. The music is wonderful, the action is entertaining, and the story will introduce you to a culture that everyone should know more about.

Four bear paws out of four! I can not wait to see this movie again.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

fantastic_beasts_and_where_to_find_them_ver15As I mentioned in my review of Doctor Strange, I love magic.

I love reading stories that have it and watching movies that embrace it.

I came late to the Harry Potter books. I started reading them after the first movie came out and a friend bought me a collection of the first five books.

I was enraptured. I read through them quickly and awaited each new addition to the story with much excitement. I awaited each movie with the same excitement.

After the series ended, I was sad that there would be no more.

When I heard that there would be a new movie based on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I was conflicted. I was overjoyed that I would be getting back into this world that fit me like a pair of comfortable socks. I was disappointed that the characters I had come to love would not be taking the stage yet again. I was worried that the magic that I had come to love in the previous movies would be absent.

My worries were unfounded and disappointment overwhelmed with joy at this new entry into the Harry Potter universe.

Fantastic Beasts takes the audience to 1926 America. Newt Scamander has arrived via steamer to complete some unfinished business. He has been traveling the world cataloging the varied magical beasts to better educate the wizarding world about their value and the need to not exterminate them. Newt has come searching for information of creatures here in america as well as to travel further into the country. In his short time here, he runs across a street preacher that speaks out against the witches that hide among the populace.

He runs across an affable no-mag, american for muggle, Kowalski at the bank. Kowalski is looking to get a loan to open a bakery. While Kowalski is speaking with the bank manager, Newt must find a creature that has escaped from his luggage. It is this frantic search that leads to Kowalski becoming entangled with Newt and bringing Newt to the attention of the congress of magic for America.

What follows is an adventure of magical proportions. Creatures run rampant, conspiracies are exposed, and villains thought escaped are captured and brought to justice.

I loved it!

The four main characters are solid. They are all likeable and give the audience an excellent entry into the story. Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Ben Fogler, Alison sudol all turn in solid performances. Each character has a heart that reaches off the screen and connects with the audience. They are far from the top levels of power but endearing in their own way. Newt is socially awkward yet intelligent, quick, and caring. He does not want to offend his american hosts but will not give up his search for his missing creatures. Kowalski is a the friendly muggle that is both in awe of the world that he has stumbled upon as well as providing a grounding for rest of the group as they pursue their various agenda. Tina Goldstein is a failed Auror desperate to get herself back into the good graces of the congress. She is earnest and eager with a heart full caring that sometimes overrides the need for discretion and circumspection. Queenie, Tina’s sister, works as a secretary and servant at the congress and dreams of doing more.

The effects on display in Fantastic Beasts are simply stunning. The magical combats that occur are fast and furious. They encapsulate what I imagine when wizards settle in for a good fight. The creatures that are on display range from the cute and cuddly to the awe-inspiring. Each is given a personality that jumps off the screen and makes you connect with the creature in almost the same way that you connect with the characters. I also loved the method in which the creatures were transported. It echoes Doctor Who and makes me love a piece of luggage as much as I love the Rincewind’s luggage.

I also appreciate that, despite a standard plot, Fantastic Beats avoid some common tropes. The expectations is for the heroes of the story is for them to transform across the breadth of the story into something approaching the standard cinematic hero. Newt remains his shy and awkward self, just a little more aware of those around him. Tina does not transform into a glamorous bon vivant that is the toast of the town but just get up the courage to show her affection for Newt. The changes the characters undergo are subtle yet powerful which was refreshing to see on the big screen.

My one quibble with the movie is the lack of diversity in the cast. If you look at the line up and compare it to The Cursed child, Fantastic Beasts is fairly disappointing on this point. the only major character to step outside the norm is Seraphina, played by Carmen Ejogo and her time on the screen is minimal. It is very disappointing and I hope this is something that the studio will aim to fix in future movies.

As I mentioned earlier, I loved Fantastic Beasts. It hits all the Harry Potter buttons that I want while providing an entertaining story. I easily lose myself in this world and love these four characters. My hope is that we get to revisit these characters while adding a bit more diversity to the cast.

Four bear paws out of four and well worth seeing a few times at the theater.

Doctor Strange

doctor-strange-2016-poster-impossibilitiesDoctor Strange was one of the most anticipated movies of the year for me.

I love the mystic heroes of Marvel and DC. The movies of each universe have neatly sidestepped the concept of magic and kept it off of the screen. Doctor Strange takes this idea and places it center stage.

I will admit, my expectations for Doctor Strange were high. I wanted to see so much from his backstory make it up on to the screen that it made it nigh impossible for me to come out of the movie rapt in adoration.

I enjoyed the movie but it missed the mark at making me love it.

Doctor Strange does an excellent job of introducing the audience to another quirky character from the marvel universe. Benedict Cumberbatch takes up the mantle of Dr. Stephen Strange with ease. He captures the arrogance and mastery that is a hallmark of Doctor Strange before he begins his journey of discovery. Cumberbatch has no difficulty walking the line between arrogant asshole and master of his craft. He is able to embody a character that is both maddening in his self-absorption and likeable for the way he is willing to help out those that he cares about.

The movie does a great job of presenting Strange’s supporting cast as well. First, I liked that they change the Ancient One to a woman.  In the comic, The ancient One comes with a lot of baggage. These issues are sidestepped to give us a female character that is both powerful and relatable. Tilda Swinton does an excellent job being the enigmatic Ancient One. I also enjoyed the changes made to Wong. Wong suffered from the same treatment as the Ancient One in the comics. He was the long-suffering servant that placed the needs of his master above his own. Here, Wong is a Master of the Mystic arts and defender of the library. He is played ably by Benjamin Wong who provides a an excellent foil for our gifted soon to be sorcerer. Finally, The casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo was inspired. He carries himself with such strength and grace that he just radiates power. He dances the line between earnestness and melodrama with style and grace and avoids falling into the stereotypical villain-to-be.

The cloak of levitation was also a pleasant surprise. In the comics, it is just a magical artifact of minor consequence. In the movie, it is a sentient item that has definite ideas about whom should be wearing it and how they are best served. The scene where Strange is trying to retrieve an axe to defend himself and the cloak forces him to make a different choice is priceless. I also loved how it tried to clean his face when he was preparing to get back into the fray and had to be told to stop.

Hilarious!

The movie fell short for me in how it treated magic. The many scenes where spells are being cast had beautiful mandala designs but put them to no use. The battles between sorcerers involved running a lot over an ever changing field of battle. The assumption was that this change of environment was caused by magic with the indicator that this was caused by a wizard was that he waved his hands. Why not have the sorcerer in question create an amazing mandala and then incorporate it into the environment? The magical battles were martial arts set pieces. This is fun to watch but why not have magical duels be similar to the things that we have seen in Harry Potter? The effects are beautiful and well done but just don’t seem to capture how magic would be done in the Marvel cinematic Universe, much less how it is portrayed in the comics.

The movie also falls a bit shot in acknowledging where it borrows. The mandalas abound yet and explanation of where they come from and why magic looks that way are in short supply. Taking the time to point out the significance of the symbols used would not have taken any time and been an excellent way of educating the audience.

Doctor Strange was an entertaining movie. It finally brings magic into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and gives us a hero that is trying to do no harm. The performances of all the players are solid and the effects are top notch. A definite three bear paws out of four from this geek bear. If you have a chance, get to the theater to see this movie. Also, well worth seeing in iMax 3D if they have it where you live.