Archive for November 2016

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.

Court of Shadows

courtofshadowsWhile at GenCon, I make a lot of impulse purchases. I was at the Catalyst Game Labs booth to see what was new for Shadowrun. I noticed that they had done something for Shadowrun that I had not seen before. It was an alternate setting book.

Court of Shadows.

I did very well in that I did not scream take my money, now!

The Court of Shadows provides a setting in the Shadowrun universe that incorporates faeries, the seelie court, and all the magic and intrigue that these things entail. It was at the top of the pile as I made my way to complete my purchases.

The book itself is a gorgeous artifact. It is a full color hardbound book that comes in at a respectable 192 page count. The cover art is gorgeous and very evocative of the faerie and faerie courts. The art is very suggestive of the Morrigan of celtic mythology which is a definite plus for me. This art is used again as the end pages of the book which I found to be a nice touch.  I also enjoyed the art throughout the book. It does an excellent job of highlighting the feel of wonder and strangeness that should be associated with the fae.

The pieces of fiction that are found throughout the book are a key piece to the book. They provide and excellent picture for how the faerie and the seelie court would function within the Shadowrun universe. In particular, I like the opening piece where the runners have been doing jobs for one particular Johnson and the last job sees them being told whom they had been working for and how the tilt has changed the game and brought them into the court.

Similar to previous Shadowrun books, Court of Shadows is presented like a collection of data that has been drawn together by Shadowrunners to keep their friends informed. The information gathered is designed to give an overview of the seelie court, how it functions, as well as descriptions of major players, places, and things of interest.

Having read the book, I have mixed feelings about it.

Let’s start with the positive.

I like the idea of an alternative setting for Shadowrun and I love that they would start out with the seelie court. The book does an excellent job of capturing the feel that I would expect from a seelie court setting. It has the high magic that I would expect from the faerie and it ties the faerie and their lands into the Shadowrun universe in a wonderful fashion. I appreciated how they tied the fae to the different ages and the cycle of mana. Having played through Harlequin and Harlequin’s Back, the writers have definitely done their homework. The descriptions of the court and how it works gives a good picture of the byzantine diplomacy that is an everyday fixture of the setting. The ever shifting panoply of signs an signals and the many layers that any one thing can hold is inspired. In particular, I like the side bar that talks about color. It addresses how the court itself is so overwhelmingly colorful and yet the meaning behind the use of color is not so simple to suss out.

I love the descriptions of the factions. Each faction has many layered agendas that provide both excellent hooks for play as well as providing points of reference for how and why each faction exists. In addition, I like that each faction is somehow tied to the material plane. The means can be simply that the faction is named after a card from the Sixth World Tarot. These are magical artifacts that have unknown abilities that are appearing on the material plane. Other factions take a stance somewhere on the spectrum as to how the fae should eal with the world now that the connection has been reforged. These ideas run from integration to isolation and points in between. This provides excellent points of ingress for players as well as jumping off points for game masters to create adventures.

The stylistic change to hacking is also inspired. The fae live long lives and memories become the anchor that drags them down into ennui and madness. To combat this, they strike deals with mortals to hold large chunks of memories. These mortals are called Coimeadai. They are the targets of hacking because everything is remembered, you just have to know who saw what happened. I like how these beings are treated as technomancers even if they were not before striking the bargain with the fae. It creates a unique obstacle for hackers as well puts a different spin on this idea in the game.

One of my problems with court of Shadows is that the style of play that it supports is not something I have ever found in a game of Shadowrun. The closest I have come has been the afore mentioned Harlequin and Harlequin’s Back. The book itself mentions a rules set that is being released for Shadowrun entitled Anarchy that fits much better with this setting. With it feeling so different, I felt like it could have done with more advice around running games here.

The book also feels a bit thin for an alternate setting. Court of Shadows gives lots of flavor but it is light on details. The book mentions that this setting is a metaplane. This implies that characters get here are either brought by the fae for some purpose or are powerful enough to get here on their own. Other means of ingress are mentioned but little detail is actually given. The geography of the realm is hinted at but, outside of the castle, everything is painted with a broad brush. A listing of people of import and creatures is also provided but it suffers from the same lack of more information.

the books gives tantalizing bits of information on the who’s and what’s of this new realm but leaves a lot of work in the hands of the game master to provide the flesh to the bones that are provided.

Overall, I still give three bear paws out of four to Court of Shadows. It provides and interesting setting for Shadowrun that supports a very different play style than your standard run. I love anything that handles the fae and the Seelie court and this book does a good job of capturing the feel that I would expect. I just wished that it offered more in the way of actually setting information or guidance to the game master that was planning on using this as the basis for a new game or a way of expanding an existing game. A great addition to library for any fan of Shadowrun or the fae.