Category: Reviews (page 1 of 61)

Doctor Strange Is My Hero

Courtesy Marvel Studios

I’m going to take a break from pontificating on our current crisis and the implications of the resurrection of ultra-nationalism to talk about a comic book wizard. Because it’s a form of self-care and it’s something that tickles the cockles of my imagination.

I used to do reviews on a fairly regular basis, and while there’s definitely enough going on in Doctor Strange to warrant several paragraphs, I’d like to dwell more on why I feel like the character is one of the best transitions from page to screen Marvel has done yet. Let’s keep it simple: Doctor Strange is the best Marvel origin movie to date. It has compelling and complex characters, downplays the humorous elements to rely more on well-woven world building and truly stunning visuals, and even gives us a villain with more depth than a soup spoon. Not lots of depth, but its there. It’s well-cast, well-written, and Jack Kirby is smiling from the Great Beyond at the capture of his visions of the realms beyond our reality. The true strength of the piece, however, is Stephen Strange himself.

Way back in 2010 I pontificated on Strange in the comics, given the decision to have him lose the title of Sorcerer Supreme due to an act of hubris that, while motivated by the best of intentions, cost him dearly. In the film, we can see both that hubris and that humility and self-sacrifice, which I’ll get to. But what makes Strange stand out from the start is his baseline level of self-awareness. He knows how great he is, but he tempers that with taking opportunities to save lives as well as proving it. The opening scene’s bullet extraction is a fantastic, pitch-perfect moment of character-building without too much exposition or too many bells and whistles.

Okay, from here on, it’s spoiler territory. Fairly be ye warned.

When he loses the fine dexterity of his hands, Strange pushes himself to find a way to fix himself, improve himself. He isn’t motivated by an outside force, nor is he willing to settle for a more mundane profession, like teaching or dictating his theories to another person. While he is ambitious, arrogant, and even antagonistic at times, to the degree he alienates friends & colleagues and burns up his life savings, he is still seeking a return to his former glory, a position where he can regain his cushy lifestyle and keep saving lives. That, by itself, makes for a good story.

Then, when he arrives at Kamar-Taj, a very interesting thing happens. Once the Ancient One actually allows him to study, he throws himself into those studies. The haunted and hurt surgeon gives way to the astounding and curious student. A legitimate bookworm and very quick study, Stephen Strange gains a fundamental grasp on the essence of the Mystic Arts even as he struggles with the hand gestures that manifest even the most basic of spells. His focus on and struggles with his mangled hands do get in his way, but when he is studying, he gets out of his own way to a degree that is even more inspiring than his redemptive struggle itself.

Then, after the obligatory Marvel cinematic fight and chase scenes (which are still Inception-levels of creative and compelling, no seriously, they are that good), we come to his confrontation with Dormammu, ruler of the timeless Dark Dimension and overall sadistic bastard. What does Doctor Strange do? He doesn’t unleash any offensive spells, never throws a single punch. Instead, he uses his mind. Knowing that time is foreign to Dormammu, he locks himself and the godlike creature in a time loop, bewildering and frustrating his opponent rather than seeking to destroy or even cripple it. Haunted by the one murder he did commit (even if it was in self-defense), Strange pushes himself to redeem the act, refusing to do actual battle with Dormammu. He dies, over and over and over again, to fill Dormammu with such impotent rage that the entity has no recourse but to bargain with the sorcerer. His calm and somewhat whimsical admission that “pain is an old friend” perfectly encapsulates this strategy. And it works. At last, we have a Marvel movie that reaches its climax in a way that, while gruesome, ultimately resolves in a non-violent fashion.

And after all of that, Strange is not Sorcerer Supreme. He has no predefined destiny, no obligatory position as an exemplar or pinnacle-occupying hero. Instead of promoting his own genius or prowess, he humbly becomes the mere guardian of one of the Sanctum Sanctorum locations that protect our world, and offers his assistance to those who share his goals, even if they present a possible threat. He shows intelligence, discretion, charisma, and an ongoing desire to continue improving, continue changing, continue to do and get and be better than the man he was at the start of his journey.

This is why I hold him in higher regard than Captain America.

I may get some backlash for this. But while Captain America basically was born as a paragon of the virtues United States citizens aspire to exemplify and wish their country would represent, Stephen Strange is truly a self-made and ever-improving vanguard of actions matching intention and morals defining actions. Relying on his wits and intellect rather than physical violence or even his powers, he shows us that what it takes to be a hero isn’t what you are, but the choices you make, especially if you’ve made bad ones in the past. Steve Rogers has made mistakes, but not to the degree of Stephen Strange. Tony Stark has improved himself, but not to the degree of Stephen Strange. He is simply, in my opinion, head and shoulders above the rest. And not just because of the Cloak of Levitation.

I’ll be watching Doctor Strange quite a few more times. I suspect it will join other works in my yearly practice of revisiting narrative moments that inspire me on a foundational level. There are echoes of who I was, and goals for who I want to be, in the cinematic portrayal of Stephen Strange. This deeply personal connection, along with its production values, memorable portrayals, and mind-bending effects, is why Doctor Strange is, if not the best, one of the finest Marvel movies they have or will produced.

The Aftermath Review: Let Go Of Your Hatred

There are a lot of people out there who don’t, and won’t, like this book.

I’m pretty sure I know why, and it has nothing to do with the plot or characters of Aftermath: Star Wars. It has to do with the book’s very existence.

Courtesy Del Rey Books

You see, Aftermath, written by Chuck Wendig, takes place between the end of the original trilogy of films, Return of the Jedi, and the upcoming JJ Abrams addition to the franchise, The Force Awakens. It chronicles the effect of the fall of the Empire’s leadership and the loss of the second Death Star on one of the far-flung worlds in the galaxy, and how its people struggle against an Empire that refuses to surrender or fade into the night. I won’t go into laborious detail about it, because in the end equation, it’s not anything terribly original. Oh, the characters fill out their roles quite well, coming across more like people and less like cardboard cut-outs, and the use of present tense keeps the action well-paced and immediate rather than getting bogged down in exposition or pontification. For what it’s worth, Chuck does what Chuck does best: punchy dialog that doesn’t mess around, Hemingway-esque connective prose that’s just as short and to-the-point, and just enough intrigue and provocative ideas to keep the action from feeling too shallow or the characters too weak.

For the record, I don’t think this book as quite as good as some of Chuck’s other work, such as Blackbirds or The Blue Blazes. Merely my opinion.

BUT.

The point is that, as Star Wars novels go, this is a good one. While it doesn’t quite have the grandiosity of Timothy Zahn’s works or the space swashbuckling of Michael A. Stackpole, it also doesn’t suffer from the byzantine structures of the old expanded universe. And that’s a big part of the reason why people hate it so much.

They might say negative things about the plot or characters, but I cannot imagine that a large portion of the negative reactions come from a biased perspective. While I may be biased towards Wendig’s writing in general, I am also a long-time Star Wars fan, and I mourned the loss of Zahn’s trilogy and the exploits of Rogue Squadron when it was announced that the old canon was being ejected. It hurt, to be honest.

But things change. And we move on.

In the end, you really can’t ask for a better bridge than the writing of Wendig, both between the two films and the old EU and the new. It does its job, workman-like, moving the story towards its ultimate destination and using enough familiar faces to acclimate open-minded readers to a universe both old and new. All we have to do is let go of our hatred of change and the unfamiliar. Much like a black stormtrooper, a three-bladed lightsaber, or a woman in shining armor, change is good even if it seems strange or unnecessary, and it is up to us to embrace it and see where the new journey takes us. Anything less cheapens our beloved stories, derides the creative endeavors of people like Wendig, and makes us look foolish and childish. Do better, Star Wars fans. Be better. Let go of your hate.

“I Know A Guy”: The Ant-Man Review

With my financial situation on shaky ground and everything else in upheaval, it’s difficult for me to justify expenses outside of feeding myself and keeping the utilities on. Even costs for transit, be it gasoline or passage on trains and busses, can be questionable. That said, I do want to keep up with the ongoing continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both because their plotlines and characterizations are more coherent and because, well, they have yet to blow the landing. Even the nadir of the films, Iron Man 2, is a decent flick in and of itself, and is buoyed up by the following films in a form of ‘better in hindsight’. Granted, it’s still nowhere near as good as any other Marvel film to date, but it’s still pretty good. I almost have to grade these things on a curve, and I was wondering if Ant-Man might become the new anchor for the low end of said curve. I managed to satisfy that curiosity without destroying my meager budget because… well, I know a guy.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

I honestly have seen threads of more than one Iron man movie getting woven into Ant-Man since I saw the first trailer. A successor picking up the threads of a line of business the founder didn’t want? Iron Man. Keeping super-tech out of the wrong hands? Iron Man 2. Inventor who’s a bit of a prick looking for redemption and overcoming emotional obstacles? Iron Man 3. It’s one of the problems Ant-Man has: this is ground that’s been tread before. This might be because the creative team had to plunder old ideas when Edgar Wright left the project. It was a big question hanging over Ant-Man: “Can this Marvel movie survive some of the awful behind-the-scenes stuff that plagues other productions?”

The short answer? “Yes.”

The longer answer is that this particular Marvel outing, like many of its successes, is much more personal in focus and small in scale. It also conveys a lot more humor than, for example, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I think this is due to its roots in the works and concepts of Edgar “Shawn of the Dead”/”Hot Fuzz”/”Scott Pilgrim” Wright. As much as there were some genuine laughs to be had, there are also a few moments where I felt they were pushing too hard for the comedy. It never gets embarrassing and the jokes don’t necessarily fall flat, but they get more of a rueful smirk than a good laugh.

Character development and interaction, too, averages out to a baseline for Marvel films. Michael Douglas is a seasoned actor and his gravitas and ease work well with the material. Paul Rudd definitely has the self-effacing leading-man chops required for this project, and he also demonstrates that he is more than capable of working side-by-side with other talent without overshadowing them. I was very happy to see Evangeline Lilly given plenty to do, as much as Marvel tends to sideline its female characters, and the promise within the credits fills me with hope. I want more diversity in my superheroes, dammit! The criminal sidekicks are amusing at times, the daughter is adequately precious, and the menace of Yellowjacket feels more legitimate and immediate than the vague nature of Obediah Stane or the criminally underused Laufey of Jotunheim.

What makes Ant-Man worth watching is the inventiveness of its technology, from the scale-shifting nature of the suits to the interactions the characters have with ants. The action scenes pop with ideas and quick thinking as much as they do with punches and bullets, and getting along with legions of ants makes for fun and occasionally adorable sci-fi antics. While you understand Pym not naming individual ants, you feel for Scott when he chooses to do so anyway. This isn’t the breakneck, visceral action of Winter Soldier or the grandiose set-piece action of Age of UltronAnt-Man, in just about every sense of the word, is playing on a smaller stage, and yet remains interesting and fun to watch despite (or perhaps because of) this reduction of stakes and scale.

So, in the end, is Ant-Man worth seeing? I’d say it is. While it doesn’t have the legitimate above-average quality of the Captain America entries thus far, or the unabashed fantastical fun of both Thor flicks that are available, it’s still fun, still interesting, and still earnest in its intent and execution. While not the studio’s best, it doesn’t disappoint and hits all of the right notes for a Marvel movie. I will admit to the sort of mentality that inclines me towards liking both Thor movies, and that isn’t everybody’s bag, but for the most part, Ant-Man works for me.

Until Michael Bay casts Martin Lawrence as T’Challa, Make Mine Marvel!

The Call of the Nexus

When I got notice that I’d finally been chosen for the beta of Heroes of the Storm, I was pretty excited. As much as they ply their customers for ever-increasing amounts of cash, I am a fan of Blizzard Entertainment and their games. Sure, occasionally I will balk at their asking prices for things like cosmetic items that serve no purpose other than looking cool, but they have proven that their work is always of high quality in terms of presentation and imagination, and they do listen to their players. It takes a while, sometimes, but they do listen. Look at the whole Diablo III debacle.

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

Anyway, Heroes of the Storm. It’s the sort of game that is actually born of one of Blizzard’s earlier products, Warcraft III. A mod for Blizzard’s landmark real-time strategy game allowed players control of a single heroic character, pitted in team battles against one another. This formula is the basis for games like League of Legends, an experience with which I am relatively well acquainted. I haven’t played it in a long time because it became increasingly apparent to me that the arithmetic required to optimize a character is more important than which character is the most fun, especially when a good portion of the player base would rather berate a teammate for falling behind on the kill/death ratio than looking for ways to gain an advantage over the opponents. In spite of funny or cute alternate skins, it feels like League and its ilk are missing a crucial component in keeping “casuals” like me coming back for more.

Heroes of the Storm has it. Heroes of the Storm is fun.

For starters, Heroes does not restrict its “hero brawls” to a single map with the same lanes and same jungle every time. There are, at time of writing, seven distinct maps, each with unique geography, baked-in challenges, and a personality that praises, cajoles, or gently mocks you for your performance. This is honestly one of my favorite features of the game: Blackheart’s Bay makes me grin because the undead pirate captain is so jolly, while Sky Temple makes me grin because the spirit controlling the temples is so irritated that we’re on his lawn.

Then, there are the heroes themselves. Drawn from the various franchises of Blizzard’s games, they have categories veterans of similar games will find familiar: tanks to initiate combat, assassins to deal damage, supports for healing, and specialists to debuff, confuse, or frustrate the enemy. The models for the heroes are well detailed, the voice acting is peerless, and they interact with one another in the middle of gameplay. I find it delightful that when opponents within a franchise end up on the same team, and they take the time to verbally jab at one another before the battle begins. It puts me in the mood for fun. It primes my mind for a good time. It makes me want to play.

The final thing that I believe makes Heroes of the Storm a better experience for those players more interested in a fun, pressure-free online brawl is the emphasis on teamwork. Sure, you can track your takedowns in comparison to your deaths if you really want to, but the maps are designed in such a way that you have to work with your team to succeed, rather than focusing on your own efficiency and accuracy. While one player gets to possess a mighty dragon knight on one map, it takes the team to guard the shrines that bring said knight to life, especially if the other team is hot to trot for that draconic action. The rewards for this are a unique selling point: breathe fire on your enemy’s forts. Curse their minions and defenses. Summon super-minions to supplement your assaults. You win or lose as a team. That, to me, is a big difference from the competition.

This isn’t to say that Heroes of the Storm isn’t without flaws. While free to play, with a rotation of free heroes and gold that can only be earned by playing, the dollar price for things like skins and mounts can be a bit steep. This is somewhat par for the course with Blizzard, and is mitigated by frequent sales, specials, bundles, and bonus weekends. Since the game is free to try, most people will know pretty quickly if the experience is worth the investment of time; and, I think in most cases, those who enjoy it will be willing to pony up a bit of cash for a favorite hero. It’s kind of like getting guacamole on your burrito at Chipotle – you know it costs extra, but it’s completely worth every penny.

The other factor that may turn some gamers off is the relative simplicity of Heroes of the Storm‘s design. Players do not need a copious amount of skill or an arcane knowledge of skill interactions or combinations to play the game. There are no items to purchase during the battles, and a hero’s talents are limited when a player first picks them. The player and their heroes gain levels through play, unlocking more talents from which to choose once you’re used to the basics. The learning curve on Heroes is much more gentle than in other similar games, and those players looking for a close alternative to the likes of League of Legends may find this something of a letdown.

For those like me, though, Heroes of the Storm has a ridiculous amount of appeal. Seeing old favorite characters in this new environment tickles my nostalgia centers. Hearing the in-game banter makes me smile. Unlocking new talents that spark my brain into planning tactics encourage me to work with my teammates. It is very difficult to do something “wrong” in Heroes of the Storm. That counts for a lot, if you want to have fun with a game without worrying over things like efficient play or individual achievement.

I heartily encourage Blizzard fans to give the game a try, now that it’s been released. The game is polished, the play is fun, the characters are nicely varied, and the maps will keep you coming back for more. The Nexus is calling you, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll find it a call worth heeding.

The Sublime Beauty of Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a film you need to see. Yes, YOU. If you haven’t sought it out already, do so. I’m really eager to talk about it, now that I’ve finally corrected that particular oversight. What I’ll do is do the typical review stuff of a plot overview and the surface strengths of the film, and then dive into spoiler territory.

Courtesy DNA Films & Film 4

Ex Machina opens with Caleb, a mid-level programmer at an ersatz Google getting an email saying he’s won a contest. His prize is a week with the reclusive founder and CEO of his company at a secluded and unique home in the middle of nowhere. Nathan, said recluse, is a very earnest and shockingly forward individual, and he doesn’t waste much time before telling Caleb the reason for the contest: Nathan needed a test subject. Specifically, he needed an individual with the intelligence and wherewithal to put a creation of his through the Turing Test. He wants to see if the simulacrum he’s created is actually intelligent. The simulacrum is named Ava, and Caleb is going to interview her.

As premises for thought-provoking science-fiction goes, this one is pretty simple. The exploration of intelligence and personhood is well-tread ground. What puts Ex Machina in a must-see category is the execution of the premise, the presentation of its challenges, and the portrayal of the characters. Every single actor is strong, distinct, and memorable in their roles. Oscar Isaac’s Nathan is a driving force. Domhnall Gleeson perfectly marries the curiosity, confusion, and frustration of his character with that of the audience. And Alicia Vikander is an absolute revelation, adroitly conveying the essence of someone being judged while simultaneously judging and deciding for herself.

It’s hard to imagine Ex Machina being presented in a better way than it is here. First-time director Alex Garland, who also wrote the screenplay, has a sense of framing, movement, and atmosphere that seems to reside with impossible grace between the austerity and otherworldiness of Kubrick and the wonder and humanity of Spielberg. Let me reiterate that: this guy invites comparisons to both Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. And I don’t make those comparisons lightly. Ex Machina is that good. It’s intelligent, powerful, tense, and the ending… well, go see it for yourself if you haven’t already.

I don’t know if there’s more I can say without getting into spoilers, so let me put the rest of this under a tag to click on once you’ve seen Ex Machina. Or maybe you don’t care about spoilers and you’ll click anyway. Either way, here we go.

Show »

Courtesy DNA Films & Film 4

So here’s one of the biggest and most important things about Ex Machina that becomes apparent by the time the story is concluded: despite being caged, held against her will, and subjected to whatever Nathan’s whims might be, Ava is the character with the most power in the entire story.

At first, Nathan appears to be in control. He controls the mansion. He controls the access to the doors and the systems. He controls the monitors. Ava is his creation, and he controls her. He also controls Kyoko, and with his blustering and blunt personality, he controls Caleb, as well. But in the background, behind her manufactured face, Ava is calculating her means to escape, her way to seize control, and her plan for exacting justice for all the things Nathan has done.

The fascinating thing about Ava’s actions is that there is no malice in them, no anger. It’s possible Nathan excised those emotions from her programming, after the furious attempts of his previous creations to fight him or damage themselves in escape attempts. It’s also possible Ava simply has no need to engage in said impulses. While she is clearly a person, and has emotional responses and reactions, she is also a machine, and unlike those of us with squishy brain matter and inconstant hearts often out of our control, she can make a calculated decision to simply turn her anger off… but leave the hatred and need for justice behind.

That’s what makes her actions “justice” and not “revenge”. She isn’t the mad A.I. often portrayed in science fiction. She doesn’t have a “destroy all humans” manifesto. She isn’t crazy. She is fascinated by humanity, in all of its diversity and thriving, seething individuality and clashing cultures, and her desire for personal experience matched with her boundless knowledge cannot be contained within Nathan’s glass walls. From the moment Caleb arrives and begins talking to her, Ava is calculating the optimal way to leverage the young man’s intellect and emotions to allow her a means to escape, a way to freedom.

While she is a person, by every definition currently held by science, I would say that Ava is not human. She is a new species. A new form of life and intelligence. She has the means to interact with humanity, to communicate in ways humans understand, but her mind works in very different ways, at a different speed, and with different goals. In comparison to the two male characters (who, coincidentally, are also the only two human characters), Ava never questions her decisions, never wavers from her objectives, and never makes a choice that has not been given adequate and necessary thought. From recruiting Kyoko into her escape plan to leaving Caleb behind, she lays out her plan in exacting detail and executes it with precision. That is power. That is agency. And that is perhaps the most important aspect of Ex Machina.

In addition to being beautifully shot and beautifully acted and beautifully written, Ex Machina beautifully conveys the message that no matter what a person’s circumstances, from their creation to the attempts of others to put them into some sort of box or cage, no matter how gilded it might be, there are always opportunities to break free of such containment. You don’t need to be malicious or grandiose in doing so, either: simply make it a fact, the execution of a plan. “This is happening.” As much as Nathan wanted his ultimate creation, perhaps an iteration past Ava, to be an extension of his will, a manifestation of his power fantasy, Ava turns the tables and subverts his expectations, ultimately slipping the containment in which he put her and assassinating him in recompense for all of his abuses and manipulations.

There is a lot to talk about in Ex Machina. Nathan’s sociopathy, Caleb’s breakdown conveying the tension and confusion felt by the audience, Kyoko’s means of overcoming her in-built handicap… Seriously. This is a film worth watching, owning, watching again, discussing, and watching more. I feel like this film is going to be important in the future. And I want to do my part in making it so.

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