Movie Review: Spider-man: No Way Home (2021)

TL;DR – The world knows Peter Parker is Spider-man, and he turns to Dr Strange for a spell that will make everyone forget Spidey’s true identity. When the spell gets messed up, the universe opens up to parallel dimensions. Dimensions where villains in other Spidey worlds come to pay Peter a visit. Get ready for the most epic Spider-man yet. Strap in and hold on to that bucket of popcorn.

Review (warning: spoilers)

It’s a tough gig being your friendly neighbourhood Spider-man. Especially when J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons) outs Spidey’s secret identity on every big screen billboard in New York city revealing the kid behind the mask is Peter Parker (Tom Holland). When Tony Stark revealed that he was Iron Man, he had enough security guards and technology to ensure he could maintain his privacy (it also helped that he owned the entire building, Stark Tower, where he lived in the penthouse). No such luck for Peter who just wants to spend time with his girlfriend, MJ (Zendaya) and his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon). High school is tough enough without every other kid pulling out their phones and wanting to take selfies or videos as you walk down the hallway to class.

The opening scenes of Spider-man: No Way Home are frenetic as we watch Peter web-sling his way through the city with MJ clinging to him for dear life while trying to avoid the media helicopters and public scrutiny. If you have not seen the previous Spidey film, Spider-man: Far From Home, it is advisable to at least read the synopsis so you get the gist of the commotion you’ll see at the start of No Way Home. The controversy around Peter’s encounter with Mysterio in Far From Home has been spun by Jameson’s Daily Bugle news broadcast and now questions surround Peter’s actions, which lead to an interrogation by the Department of Damage Control. Even when lawyer, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) aka Daredevil, manages to get the charges dropped, Jameson continues on his crusade to eviscerate Spider-man.

The pressure becomes all too much, and Peter turns to Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help. You know things will go sideways when you use magic to solve your problems, so when Dr Strange attempts a spell to make everyone forget Spider-man’s real identity (except those who are closest to Peter), what happens instead is the spell rips a hole into the multi-verse.

For those who have seen the excellent animated film Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse then they will be familiar with the idea of parallel dimensions. The multi-verse allows for alternate timelines to occur where different Peter Parkers exist and live lives that are based on the different decisions they make. When villains in other Spider-man films start appearing in this one, you can’t help but be giddy if you’re a comic book fan. When alternate Spider-men appear and you see it’s all the original cast (i.e. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield), fans will achieve comic geek euphoria (and even if you’re not a comic book fan, if you enjoy the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’ll be applauding anyway).

What follows is a surprisingly emotional wrung film that sees three Spideys try to stop all the villains by attempting to alter things that would turn them into villains in the first place. This could have been a big bash up where fists do all the talking, and there is plenty of action in the film, but what elevates it above basic action flicks is that the villains are able to change (or at least, some of them are able to) with the help of the three Peters. The villains are tortured souls and their transformations are key to the emotional drive.

And then there’s Aunt May getting killed. If that doesn’t sting your eyes, then nothing will.

Overall, Spider-man: No Way Home is a blockbuster film that will open up infinite possibilities for new stories in the MCU. Director Jon Watts has managed to tell a story that could have tied itself into time paradox knots, but instead is cohesive and thrilling and will have you downing the popcorn and cheering our friendly neighbourhood Spider-man on for more. Spidey fans rejoice!

Now can someone please, PLEASE make a Spider-Gwen movie?

10 out of 10

Book Review: Saga (Volume 6) by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

TL;DR – Marko and Alana chase down the location of where their daughter is being held. With the help of Robot IV, they fly in under the radar to save her.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to read reviews of previous volumes of this Eisner award winning series.

After being separated from both her parents, Hazel ends up in a detainee centre for enemy noncombatants with her grandmother, Klara.

Marko and Alana break into a hall of records on planet Variegate in search of information of where Hazel has ended up. They discover the detainee centre holding Hazel is on Landfall. To get into the centre, they’ll need the help of the now disowned and demoted Prince Robot IV (who is now a knight errant).

Together they manage to break Hazel out. The family is now whole once more and then some… for it turns out that Alana is pregnant again.

Review

Saga continues its journey of exploration of its main characters as they navigate the ongoing war and bloodshed between Landfall and Wreath. Hazel is now a young girl and receiving education on Landfall at the detainee centre. She develops a close friendship with her teacher (who believes she is a Wreather because of her horns on her head) but discovers that Hazel (who reveals her secret) is the child of both a Landfallian and Wreather by showing she also has wings. Hazel’s teacher is so shocked that she faints and hits her head on the corner of a desk.

This demonstrates the perceived impossibility of Marko (Wreather) and Alana’s (Landfallian) union. The entire galaxy is of the belief that the two sides hate each other so deeply that the idea of one on each side falling in love and having a child together is so preposterous that it causes other aliens to faint.

Marko and Alana finally locate where Hazel is held and seek help from Robot IV who would rather blow his television head off than help the pair. Having lost his wife to a murderer, Robot IV is only concerned with raising his squire son in peace. In his own words, “I’m taking my boy and getting as far away from those two black holes as possible.” But good ol’ emotional blackmail ensures that Marko and Alana get their way. There is some surprising humour in this sequence of events.

Volume six also brings us back to Upsher and Doff, our investigative journalists for the Hebdomadal. They receive news that The Brand is dead, and thus the spell cast upon them by the bounty hunter (i.e. the one where if they speak of the forbidden relationship between Marko and Alana to anyone they’ll die) has been broken. Thus, they jump back on the news trail and interview Ginny, the ballet teacher that Marko almost had a fling with in volume four. However, in the process, they get roped in through threat of death by The Will who is hunting down Robot IV to get revenge for killing The Brand (his sister) and The Stalk (his ex-girlfriend). The Will has taken a turn for the worse as he’s high on drugs and keeps talking to an imaginary The Stalk who is happily egging him on for bloodshed. See a pattern here? Seems like Robot IV’s description of our lovey-dove fugitives as black holes is not far off.

With the journalists help, The Will manages to locate where Robot IV was last seen, but when he arrives he only finds the little squire and his protectors, Ghus (the seal) and Friendo (the giant walrus). Robot IV has already left with Marko and Alana to rescue Hazel, leaving his son with Ghus. A bloody scuffle occurs where The Will loses the fingers on his right hand, and he is about to start his revenge spree by killing the little squire, but at the last moment, his drug-addled brain conjures up a conversation with his dead sister, The Brand, who convinces him that revenge will not fill the holes in his heart left by the murders of his sister and ex-girlfriend. He leaves in search of some sort of absolution.

The final pages ends on a happier note for once (compared to previous volumes) where we see Marko successfully rescue Hazel and they are reunited with Alana. In the process, one of the detainees, a Wreather transsexual named Petrichor also escapes with them and is able to determine that Alana is pregnant with another child. The shock on Marko’s face and the smile on Alana’s face is priceless.

Overall, the best scenes are when Hazel finally gets back with her father and mother, along with the surprisingly funny sequence of events involving Robot IV who reluctantly agrees to help them (this is a nice change because in prior volumes, Robot IV was on mission to kill anyone in his way from finding his son). That darkness is now all on The Will, whose spiral into the abyss is a fine contrast to the light shone by Hazel. I still struggled with the journalists, Upsher and Doff (in previous reviews of Saga volumes, I commented that Upsher and Doff felt like filler characters, there to pad out the story). But volume six ties off this arc nicely and brings about anticipation of what will happen next.

3.5 out of 5

Anime Review: Your Name (2016)

TL;DR – Body switching, time travel, and a race to save a town from destruction. If there is Makoto Shinkai film to watch, this is it.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Comet Tiamat passes earth causing weather reporters, astronomers, and night gazers to look up at the skies to view this incredible phenomenon. A piece of the comet breaks off and enters the earth’s atmosphere. Instead of burning up, it pierces the clouds like a runaway fireball and looks like it will land somewhere in Japan. This is the opening scene of Your Name and the comet fragment is central to the events that follow.

Mitsuha and Taki are about to experience some existentially weird stuff. Their lives are as opposite as can be even though from the outside they look like normal high schoolers.

For starters, Mitsuha is a girl living in a country town, Itomori, and there is little do. Surrounded by lush mountains and a beautiful lake, Itomori is steeped in Japanese tradition. They have autumn festivals, a Shinto shrine, and Mitsuha performs duties as a shrine maiden by conducting the ritual kuchikamizake (a process of creating sake using one’s own saliva to trigger fermentation).

Taki, on the other hand, is a boy living in the big smoke, Tokyo, and there is plenty to do. In fact, there’s too much to juggle for Taki who tries to keep up with the constant rush that cities exude. From school studies to holding down a part-time job at an Italian restaurant, when Taki does find any spare time, he does sketches and hopes to one day be an architect.

From the get-go, the weird stuff happens when Mitsuha wakes up in Taki’s body. She thinks she’s dreaming and just goes along living out a day in the life of Taki. Little does she know that her behaviour makes Taki appear like a totally different person and Taki’s school friends and co-workers at the Italian restaurant notice. Likewise, Taki finds himself in Mitsuha’s body and fumbles his way through one of her days. It is only when they return to their bodies and wake up the next day that they slowly come to piece together the passages of time that are unaccounted for. Messages that they write down in each other’s notepads and on their phones confirms that their body switching experiences are real and not a dream.

If that is not existentially weird enough, as they get to know each other, not just physically being in each other’s bodies, which leads to some hilarious biological explorations, but also on an emotional scale, they begin seeing through each other’s eyes and giving each other advice to help provide direction and confidence. This leads to Mitsuha (in Taki’s body) asking Miki (a girl that works at the Italian restaurant) out on a date. Taki has long since had a crush on Miki, but when they finally go out, Taki realises his feelings have changed. He has developed a connection with Mitsuha that runs deeper than swapping bodies. Likewise, Mitsuha comes to admit that she also has feelings for Taki even though she does what she thinks is the ‘right thing’ for him by setting him up on a date with Miki. Describing this (confusingly) in words doesn’t do this sequence of events justice as the film depicts this beautifully leading to Taki trying to call Mitsuha on her phone. However, to his surprise, the phone number has been disconnected.

And then the body swapping stops…

Taki is confused as to why they have suddenly stopped switching bodies and is frustrated that he cannot contact Mitsuha to confess his feelings to her. This is when the existential weird stuff goes up another level.

Taki goes about trying to find where Mitsuha lives. He doesn’t know the name of the town and can only go on the sketches he has made from memory. With the help of Miki and school friend, Tsukasa, he sets out to find the country town.

What he discovers is that the town has been destroyed by the comet fragment. The same comet fragment that broke off from Tiamat three years ago. Yes, not only has Taki and Mitsuha been switching bodies, but they have also been switching time. Taki time travelled backwards to when Mitsuha and the town of Itomori were alive in 2013, and Mitsuha has time travelled forward into Taki’s body in 2016. The moment that Taki no longer swaps bodies with Mitsuha (the moment he tries to call her phone) is the moment that Itomori becomes obliterated by the comet fragment, killing everyone in the town including Mitsuha.

This revelation spurs Taki to try to go back in time again to warn Mitsuha and involves him venturing to the Shinto shrine and consuming the sake that Mitsuha created through the kuchikamizake ritual.

Director Makoto Shinkai wrings out every bit of emotion and by the end you’ll be exhausted, but he does it in such a way that investing in the journey will be worth it. The ending is typical of Shinkai’s films (i.e. plenty of tears) but Your Name is by far the most complex story Shinkai has undertaken compared to previous works. As the viewer, I was most impressed that he did not lose me in the telling. The story is revealed in a way that is coherent if you pay attention, and you don’t need a master’s degree in theoretical physics or knowledge of quantum mechanics to understand what is going on. Another bonus is that Your Name has splashes of humour; something that is often absent in Shinkai’s films.

Beyond brilliant.

10 out of 10

Movie Review: Dune (Part 1) (2021)

TL;DR – Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel masterpiece is brought to life and tells the story about a galactic empire seeking to maintain its power by controlling the “spice” trade (a substance that allows the user to see into the future).

Review (warning: spoilers)

Political intrigue on a galactic scale is the name of the game in Dune. Based on the Hugo and Nebula award winning novel of the same name by Frank Herbert, the galaxy created and imagined by Herbert operates under a monarchy ruled by Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV. Basically, think of it as a feudal sci-fi story.

Planets are ruled by houses with established noble families and have titles based on traditional European ranks (e.g. emperor, duke, baron etc.)

Dune (Part 1) introduces us to three main players:

  • House Harkonnen is ruled by Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård) and his nephew, Rabban (Dave Bautista). The Baron is a hulking, grotesque creature that reminded me of Jabba the Hutt with a human head. A violent, military house, the Harkonnens were tasked by the Emperor to subdue the desert planet Arrakis and farm “spice” (a valuable chemical substance that brings about expanded consciousness and limited prescience).
  • House Atreides is ruled by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac). He has a son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), who is learning the reins of how to rule. When the Duke receives orders from the Emperor to go to Arrakis and takeover the spice operations from the Harkonnens, he knows that political manoeuvring is happening behind the scenes.
  • Bene Gesserit is a religious sisterhood where the women are trained physically and mentally and acquire superhuman-like powers. Women who master these skills become Reverend Mothers, the leaders of the sisterhood. Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) is Leto’s concubine, mother to Paul, and acolyte to the Bene Gesserit. She seeks to teach Paul in the disciplines which includes the Bene Gesserit power to use “the Voice” (an ability to control others using verbal commands).

The Emperor is also a main player, but he is kept hidden in part one. However, he is the one responsible for the manipulation of events that occur. He orders House Harkonnen to vacate the planet and make way for House Atredies, but this is a ploy to then assist Harkonnen to stage a coup against Atredies. The Emperor lends his forces, Sardaukar troops, that aid the Baron against the Duke.

Duke Leto is mindful that the Emperor sees him as a threat and anticipates that Baron Vladimir will make a move against him, so he organises a meeting with the Fremen (Arrakis natives, who have been fighting against Harkonnen rule) seeking to create an alliance.

Unfortunately, the coup is only part of the betrayal. To his dismay, Leto discovers that Doctor Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), who has been a loyal servant for House Atredies, is the one responsible for lowering the shields that allows the Harkonnen army and the Emperor’s troops to invade the city. Dr Yueh was being blackmailed by the Baron who has his wife. Sadly, the doctor’s act to save his wife by betraying Leto was for naught as the Baron, being the vindicative slime ball he is, ends up killing the good doctor and his wife. The invasion results in House Atredies fall, but Lady Jessica and Paul manage to escape and eventually meet up with the Fremen. Thus, ends part one.

‘But what about the Bene Gesserit?’ I hear you ask. Well, that’s where things get interesting. The focus of the film is not on the Duke and the ensuing coup, but on Paul. Seems like the Bene Gesserit have been keeping a watchful eye on young Paul and there lies a prophecy of some sort where a male Bene Gesserit (a messianic figure) would come into existence with the power to guide humanity to a better future.

Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) pays Jessica and Paul a visit prior to their departure to Arrakis. She tests Paul, which involves a poison needle and placing his hand in a box that causes him extreme pain. Gaius Helen tells him to not remove his hand otherwise she will stab him with the needle causing him instant death. It’s a riveting scene especially when Jessica is made to wait outside the doors preventing anyone to come in and help Paul. Her expression shows plainly the maternal instinct to go in and save Paul, but she restrains herself displaying an inner torture that mirrors the physical torture Paul goes through. In the end, he passes the test, and we discover he has been having dreams of a Fremen woman that appears in some of his visions to help him and other visions to kill him.

The Fremen woman in question is Chani (Zendaya). From what I can gather, she will play an integral role in Paul’s destiny whatever that may be. And when Jessica and Paul flee the coup and are found by the Fremen, lo and behold, Chani is part of the group.

The chess board is now set, and the opening forays have been played. Dune (Part 2) is slated for release in October 2023.

The visuals are astounding, and this is matched by sound effects that had a significant impact when I watched it in the cinema. The vast expanse of cities, planets, and armies are matched by sci-fi drooling spaceship constructs. The best of which are the ornithopters, which were a cross between a helicopter and a dragon fly.

All this investment in the sound and visuals would be for naught if not for the story and cast. Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson and Stellan Skarsgård were the highlights. While Skarsgård is somewhat one-dimensional in his evilness, my fingers are crossed that there are more layers beneath that slimy, obese exterior that will show the Baron is not a mere pawn. Ferguson and Chalamet have great chemistry as mother and son, and Chalamet especially embodies young Paul’s desire and angst to try and see the entire chess board when parts are clouded by fog.

This is not a straight sci-fi film like Star Wars but delves more into the political machinations of an empire trying to hold on to power across an entire galaxy. If multiple story threads are not appealing to you then this may be one to skip. To me, the complexity added to its depth rather than take away from it. I was giddy from beginning to end.

9 out of 10

Book Review: Inside Out by Maria V. Snyder

TL;DR – Young adult sci-fi mystery involving generations of humanity stuck inside a metal habitat and run by a group that hides secrets from the rest of the populace. Everyone is stuck inside, and you can’t go outside for reasons only the group in power knows. When rumour spreads of a way out, curiosity becomes a powerful force.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Trella was born and raised ‘Inside’. Her job as a ‘scrub’ involves cleaning the network of pipes that run through the mysterious metal structure she and thousands of others call home. Their home is ruled by the Travas family, who are militaristic in their approach to maintaining law and order within Inside.

Life is pretty miserable in the lower two levels of Inside due to overpopulation, and the mundane existence everyone has and the jobs they perform. So, when Trella meets a man from the upper two levels who talks about a door to the outside, it triggers a movement to overthrow their established oppressors. Reluctantly, Trella becomes the face of this movement.

Review

The world is not a sphere, it is a square prism (or prison depending on your point of view). This square prism is two kilometres wide, two kilometres long, and twenty-five metres high. There are four levels, each level broken up into nine squares. Each square (also known as quads and sectors) performs a role. For example, the cafeteria and dining area for the lower two levels resides in one of the squares on level two, hydroponics is in one of the squares in level one etc.

People who reside in the upper two levels are called, you guessed it, ‘Uppers’. And the people in the bottom two levels are called ‘Lowers’ (and they’re also referred to as ‘scrubs’ for the jobs that they have to undertake). You can see immediately that such titles would cause a division; a failure of whoever makes the decisions in understanding that collaboration may achieve greater harmony than division. Thus, the world of Inside Out has been created. Snyder’s dystopian imagining has humanity trying to survive in this prism with the scrubs doing most of the grunt work ensuring food, clothing and power is maintained while the Uppers are left to do whatever Uppers do.

Snyder’s main character is a girl named Trella, a scrub who works within the system of pipes and ductwork keeping them clean. She spends more time in the pipes than with her fellow scrubs and has been coined ‘Queen of the Pipes’ (a term used in derision as opposed to allure). Her understanding of the network has allowed her to discover ways not only into the upper levels but also knowledge of every nook, cranny, and boundary of their confined box.

To maintain order, the Uppers have established population control police (‘Pop Cops’). Scrubs that cause significant dissent that could lead to rebellion are arrested and sent to the ‘Chomper’ for recycling. Prophets, established by Pop Cops, spout propaganda to also facilitate control. These prophets would say if a scrub works hard on the Inside, then when their life ends their soul will be freed to go Outside (their physical body would be fed to Chomper).

Not much of an existence, but all the generations that might have remembered what it was like before the box have long since died.

And when a prophet named Domotor (aka ‘Broken Man’) rocks up in his wheelchair and confides in Trella the existence of Gateway and asks for her help, she thinks it is all a set up. A test to see if she is loyal to the system or wanting to start a revolution. You see, there is a myth among the lower levels about a place called Gateway that is a door to the Outside. The myth has persisted though no evidence of Gateway has ever been found. Not even by Trella who has explored practically every inch of their box.

Her thoughts change when Domotor is taken by the Pop Cops. If the Pop Cops are trying to silence Domotor then they perceive him as a threat. Trella, with the help of her only scrub friend, Cogon, rescue Domotor and whisk him away to a hidden room on the lowest level. This triggers events where Trella tries to uncover the truth about Gateway while trying to navigate the increased Pop Cops presence who are hunting down those responsible for rescuing Domotor.

Snyder has created a convincing world that should have young adult readers engaged. There’s enough mystery that had me wanting to get to the final page.

However, my struggles with the story came in two areas. The first is the characters. Inside Out has been described as, ‘The fans of The Hunger Games will devour this.’ I did not feel that Snyder brought about enough layers to Trella as Suzanne Collins did with Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. The empathy towards Katniss was far greater than it was with Trella, who comes off as someone who doesn’t really care about anyone. Deep down we know she does. Trella’s friendship with Cogon is genuine and when he is slated for execution, she is spurred even further to stop the uppers and show the existence of Gateway. When Trella meets Riley, an upper who is willing to help her, we know the chemistry is there even if Trella tries to deny it. But this emotional angst doesn’t have the pull that it should.

The second area where I struggled is the world itself. A dystopia where humans are stuck inside something and the outside is forbidden is a solid plot device. One of the best novels I have read that uses this setting is Wool by Hugh Howey. In Wool, humanity is stuck in a silo that is built deep into the earth because the outside is uninhabitable. The silo has one hundred and forty-four stories and the mysteries around the silo and how it came into existence are as many if not more than the prism in Inside Out. But it is not the scale of Snyder’s world that I struggled with. It is the language and descriptions she used in her writing.

Both characterisation and setting lack the depth of writing used in The Hunger Games or Wool. The areas within the prism are described in functional terms – solid waste handling, cafeteria, barracks, laundry etc – and I only got a vague feeling of the atmosphere. Yes, there’s fear, anger, disillusionment, mundanity, and slivers of hope but they are delivered in a way that was muted. Because Trella traverses many different sectors and levels, Snyder is forced to use a key code to describe where Trella goes. The nine squares are labelled A to I and the four levels are numbered. So A1 is the top left corner area on level one. This is a simple but boring way of telling the reader where Trella ends up. Whether it is E2 or G4, the codes end up detracting from the reading, and I found myself glossing over these bits.

Likewise, the characters don’t have the pull that I had hoped. One of the main antagonists, Pop Cop LC Karla, is one-dimensional in her actions and delivery. She does not seem to question her role in the system and appears to have no qualms in recycling scrubs or manipulating them into giving her information. She is almost robotic in form and personality.

What Snyder does do that kept me going is introduce the idea that the uppers are not all the same. We discover there are different groups within the uppers themselves and some of these groups are against how the scrubs are being treated. This is essential to provide some level of complexity to the world structure Snyder has created.

But overall, I struggled with the final arc. The successful overthrow of the ruling Travas family did not engage me, and Trella is depicted as somewhat superhuman. At one point, she is tortured to a point where you would struggle to stand on two feet let alone perform the level of movement and dexterity that she shows in moving through the pipes. The Pop Cops also seem to be quite inept. On more than one occasion Trella is able to grab weapons off the Pop Cops (e.g. stun guns from their belts) when she is suffering from injuries that would leave anyone else incapacitated.

There are also plot problems. Trella tries to locate Gateway only to believe it’s all a hoax. She gives up and is ready to hand herself over to LC Karla. She leaves behind a note and removes a microphone and receiver disguised as an earring and button respectively that she uses to communicate to the rebels in the lower levels. But in the following chapters she has them back on her person even though there is no explanation of how she came to acquire them again.

Then there’s the fact that the Travas family seems to want to encourage the scrubs to copulate and have more babies, which leads to overcrowding in the lower levels. Trella tries to understand the motivation behind this but is unable to do so and the story ends without this being explained. If anything, having the lowers grow in population means they outnumber the Pop Cops, leading to the eventual rebellion. It makes no sense that the Travas family would use overcrowding as a control method.

The other unexplained plot device is we find out there was a time when the uppers and lowers worked together. This all went down the tube because the Travas wanted to be the ones solely in control. Why did the Travas want to do this? Who knows? They come off as simply power hungry simpletons who want to rule Inside through fear and intimidation. That’s always going to be a recipe for success when you encourage population growth in a confined space and expect everyone to accept it and continue working tirelessly like drones. NOT!

There is a sequel to Inside Out called Outside In which may explain all these plot holes but I’m not invested enough to pick it up.

When the big reveal is shown that they are actually inside a spaceship and outside is nothing but the vacuum of space, I neither care nor feel any desire to see where the spaceship is going (not that their destination is revealed anyway). Inside Out had the potential to be gripping but in the end was a disappointing read.

1.5 out of 5.

Anime Review: Weathering With You (2019)

TL;DR – Hina is the ‘sunshine girl’, a person with the power to halt the rain. She meets Hodaka and together they earn a living bringing sunshine to people requesting fine weather for events. But Hina hasn’t told Hodaka that using her power comes at a cost and that eventually the price that she will pay is her life.

Review (warning: spoilers)

In a hospital in Tokyo, Hina Amano sits next to her dying mother who is hooked up to a ventilator and bedside monitor. The rain pouring outside reflects the sadness inside the room, but as Hina looks out the window she spies a ray of golden sunlight that splashes across the rooftop of a building like a beacon. Drawn to the phenomenon, Hina rushes outside, umbrella in hand, and locates the building. She ascends to the rooftop and discovers a garden shrine with a Torii gate. With heart in mouth, she clasps her hands together in prayer and walks beneath the Torii wishing she could make the rain stop so she can take her mother outside in sunny weather.

Her prayer is answered but not probably in the way she anticipates. Hina becomes the mythical weather maiden. She has the power to bring about fine weather for brief periods of time, but the rain will continue to fall over Tokyo until she sacrifices her life. The more she uses her power the more her body turns to water until she disappears completely. Only then will the abnormal rain stop and Tokyo’s weather return to normal.

Enter high school student, Hodaka Morishima, running away from home. He heads to the big city but is unable to find work. To make matters worse, the city seems to be against him. Though he tries to mind his own business, strangers try to talk to him, a pair of police officers try to question why he is alone in the city at night, another man trips him causing him to stumble into a rubbish bin, and as he pick up the rubbish, he finds a gun in the trash. Everything about Tokyo yells danger and scares him, making Hodaka wonder whether it was wise to run away.

He winds up in a McDonalds restaurant, hungry and broke. There he meets Hina, who happens to work there. Seeing the pitiful state Hodaka is in, she gives him a burger on the house though she shouldn’t be doling out free food. This act of kindness renews Hodaka’s decision to go it alone. Their paths will cross again as Hodaka seeks to navigate how he will survive and make a life in Tokyo.

Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, the animation is a feast for the eyes as is expected if you have seen Shinkai’s previous films. I’ve also concluded that he has an obsession with rain. The Garden of Words and to a lesser degree, Your Name, both have significant scenes involving rain. Perhaps he knows that animating rain is atmospheric, but clearly for his last few films, it is a key motif in his stories.

Shinkai also has a particular view (or dare I say connection) with characters that are torn apart or experience forlorn love. How much of this comes from his own personal experiences, I don’t know, but his body of films commonly centre around two characters who feel connection when they are together and disconnected and broken when they’re apart.

Voices of a Distant Star, 5 Centimetres per second, The Garden of Words, Your Name, and now Weathering with You all tell stories along these lines. However, even with this familiar formula, when combined with the outstanding animation, you still end up with an evocative and moving film.

When you discover that Hina is trying to take care of herself and her brother because her mother has passed away, and Hodaka is trying to escape his own circumstances at home, you know that they’re kindred spirits. When Hina reveals her powers to Hodaka, he sees a way for them to earn a living by setting up a website to hire out their services to provide good weather for events such as weddings and flea markets. Of course, Hina doesn’t reveal to Hodaka that using her sunshine powers comes at a cost until it’s too late.

When Hina disappears into the other world in the sky (as goes the mythical story surrounding the tragic fate of the weather maiden), Hodaka seeks to enter that other world and save her. He manages to achieve this through a crazy series of events including police chasing him and him firing the gun he found in the rubbish bin. The animation when Hodaka enters the sky world and the music that follows this sequence is magical stuff. And though he succeeds in bringing Hina back to earth, it results in rain falling in Tokyo for years to come causing flooding and much of the city to become submerged. In addition, Hodaka and Hina are separated (Hodaka’s parents filed a missing person and the police arrest Hodaka and take him home). For three years, they are apart as Hodaka serves his probation but they reunite at the film’s finale. It leaves an ambiguous end for the fate of the city but the fate of our pair is secured.

8 out of 10

TV Review: Foundation (2021) – S01E03 – The Mathematician’s Ghost

TL;DR – this episode sets the scene for what is to come. We learn about the cloning of Cleon emperors, the initial colonisation of Terminus by the Foundation, and the subsequent discovery of the Vault (a mysterious alien object that appears somewhat sentient…)

Review (warning: spoilers)

Please go to my TV reviews page to read reviews of previous episodes.

Episode three opens with a flashback of 400 years prior, when Cleon the First ruled the empire, and we see the android servant, Demerzel (Laura Birn) waltz in. She gives an update to the emperor that the programmers are progressing (referring to the project of cloning). Cleon, now in his twilight years, laments that he will not be around to see the completion of the Star Bridge. But Demerzel assures him that his continuity is assured and he will ride up the Star Bridge once construction is complete (referring to one of Cleon’s “clones”).

Fast forward 400 years and we see Demerzel speaking to Brother Darkness as they gaze out at the destroyed Star Bridge. He laments that the remaining debris of the Star Bridge could come crashing down on areas of the empire, but realises he doesn’t need to worry anymore because his time (as a Cleon) is coming to end. We see him get fitted with formal dress and is then sent off by the younger Cleon trinity into a pulsing laser furnace that turns him to ash. Thus, the cycle is shown of how Cleon succession continues in perpetuity. However, something is different this time round. Just before Brother Darkness enters the furnace, Brother Dawn (a newborn Cleon clone) starts crying. Brother Darkness turns and says something is wrong, something is different. But Demerzel reassures him that all is right and we see Brother Darkness get turned to ash.

Thus, this is the first hint that Hari Seldon’s predictions will come true. For we will see that Brother Dawn (i.e. Cleon the 14th, played by Cassian Bilton) is not quite like his predecessor clones. Seventeen years later, now a teenager, he is subtly different to the other Cleon clones (played by Lee Pace).

The scene then switches to Hari Seldon’s crew and their first steps on Terminus and the commencement of colonisation. There we see their first encounter with ‘the Vault’. A floating, mysterious black object that emanates a null field that causes anyone approaching it to fall unconscious. The only exception is Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), Warden of Terminus, and the daughter of two of the original colonists. The mystery as to what the Vault is and contains is as mysterious as why Salvor is the only one that can approach it without being affected by the null field.

Fast forward again to now, and we watch Salvor perform her duties as warden, checking the shields around the colony and testing the Vault’s null field and discovering, to her concern, that the field is expanding. We are also introduced to Hugo Crast (Daniel MacPherson) who travels the galaxy as a trader and returns for brief periods to Terminus to see Salvor; the pair being in a relationship. After their latest reunion, Salvor wakes in the night with a strange feeling and goes out to scout the Vault. There she spies a small boy running near the Vault and into the now abandoned wreckage of the colonists’ original ship.

Chasing him down, she enters the ship and discovers a Bishop’s Claw (an alien beast, native to Terminus that is extremely deadly). She scares it away only to then notice Anacreon gunships have entered the atmosphere. Salvor and Hugo gather the council to discuss what should be done as attempts to hail the Anacreon gunships have failed. They attempt to get word to the Empire to send for backup, but the communications buoy is down.

With all signs pointing in the wrong direction (i.e. conflict), Salvor tries to muster what weapons they can for defence. Salvor’s mother, Mari (Sasha Behar), also reveals to her Hari Seldon’s prime radiant, the device that contains all of Seldon’s psychohistory explained as mathematical equations. Salvor attempts to interact with the prime radiant but fails.

The following evening, Salvor gets another premonition leading to her seeing the boy again and entering the shipwreck. There she finds the Bishop’s Claw again but this time it has an arrow stuck in it. She helps the beast by removing the arrow only to find herself surrounded by hostile Anacreons. Thus ends episode three.

After the climatic end to episode two, this episode was very much backstory; the building blocks laid down for what will come in future episodes. The fascination comes in learning about the Cleon cloning cycle, the subtle sense by Brother Darkness that the Empire is in peril, the mystery of the Vault that appears to be somehow sentient and warns Salvor, and the arrival of the Anacreons who have a significant bone to pick against the Empire because their planet was devastated by the Empire’s army after being accused of the terrorist attack on the Star Bridge.

A lot happens but nothing is revealed about Gaal Dornick’s (Lou Llobell) fate who we saw shoved into an escape pod and put in cryogenic stasis at the end of the previous episode. Instead, Gaal acts as narrator for this episode talking of how the living is surrounded by ghosts and those ghosts can both haunt and warn us of what is to come. Lots of questions are raised as to what will happen to the Foundation on Terminus as well as the fate of the Empire.

But the biggest questions I have are from episode two. Why was Hari Seldon murdered by his aide, Raych Foss, aboard the ship travelling to Terminus? And why did Raych send Gaal off in an escape pod?

So many questions, so few answers.

8 out of 10

Hello 2022 & My Top 5s for 2021

licensed under CC BY-NC

Happy new year! As is often the case, there is a feeling of expectation for a new year even if the passage of time is constant. We mark time and moments to achieve a sense of order, and if viewed through the right lens, we can appreciate the time given to us. I hope that 2022 brings each of you a sense of fulfilment in whatever shape that may take. Remember deep breaths and enjoy the ride.

A review of 2021 marked the re-boot of my blog, and I hope to continue with my reviews while having the opportunity to share some of my original work and manuscripts that I have in the pipeline. As a writer, the challenge of balancing my blog, manuscripts, day job, and parenthood is an ongoing juggling act. I look forward to continue this writing journey and diving into this slice of life we have on our little blue dot.

For now, I would like to share my top 5s for 2021 in each category I blogged about. Please keep in mind this is based on my published reviews for 2021 (NOT the top 5 of all time in each category).

Books

  1. The Wife and the Widow by Christian White – atmospheric mystery story that had me reeling in its cleverness and filled me with envy that White could write in this way.
  2. Thunderhead (Book 2 of Arc of a Scythe Series) by Neal Shusterman – very rarely do second books in a trilogy exceed the first or final books in the series. Shusterman does just that with Thunderhead.
  3. The Promise Seed by Cass Moriarty – a gem of a novel that captures youth and age. The two main characters develop a bond even though their differences (on the surface) seem to be many.
  4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – magic is real! The night circus actually feels a part of you by the time you turn the last page.
  5. The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth – the only non-fiction book that made my top 5 for 2021, Forsyth is a master of breaking down the effectiveness of English rhetoric in what could have been a dry topic, but he makes fascinating and funny. A must for any writer’s toolkit.

Movies

  1. Free Guy – this was the surprise flick for 2021 for me. Ryan Reynolds has long been typecast and it is no different really in Free Guy, but the concept and story combined with awesome CGI had me laughing and feeling inspired in equal measure. Deserves repeat viewing.
  2. Wolfwalkers – ecstatic that I stumbled on this movie on Apple+ TV. An animated film that captures Irish folklore and imagery with such colour and beauty that every frame has been crafted with love and care.
  3. The Half of It – the relationship triangle depicted in this film is a wonderful coming-of-age comedy drama that surprised me with how emotionally effecting it was.
  4. Nobody – the ending went a bit silly but the build up, and the scene on the bus were beyond brilliant. That alone was worth the price of admission.
  5. Cruella – Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are so good that you could remove every other character in this film and still be riveted.

(honourable mention: The Last Duel – I almost put this in the top 5 over Cruella. Clever story telling, action sequences are brutal and real, and the characters are flawed and interesting)

Anime

  1. Cowboy Bebop – the ultimate sci-fi soap opera that has stood the test of time with the best killer jazz/blues soundtrack ever.
  2. Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae wo Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai – ending goes a bit overboard on the emo, but the tale of a group of childhood friends and how they drift apart (due to an incident) but come back together is both uplifting and heart wrenching.
  3. Tonari no Totoro – Miyazaki masterpiece **microphone dropped**
  4. Haikyuu!! Season 1 – this anime series will inspire you to play volleyball, or at least inspire you to follow your passions.
  5. Usagi Drop – slice of life gem of an anime where the child teaches the adult as much as the adult teaches the child about what it means to live life.

(honourable mentions: I could have listed other Miyazaki movies that I published reviews on – Princess Mononoke, Porco Rosso, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Laputa: Castle in the Sky – but that would have been a very boring list)

2021 Happy Holidays & Thank You

licensed under CC BY

In a year that has seen the COVID pandemic carry over, 2021 has been another roller coaster.

For yours truly, there have been many highs and lows. By far the most overwhelming moment was the death of my father, who passed away in March this year due to cancer. In my journey to live a meaningful life and write stories that inspire, he led a life that demonstrated his passions and what was important to him. His family, his friends, and his never-ending love for his homeland Taiwan were demonstrated in his every action and piece of writing. As a professor in political science, my father wrote articles and books (in both English and Mandarin) that created a body of work that is staggering. He encouraged and inspired me to follow my own writing even if it was as far removed from politics as can be (i.e. fantasy/sci-fi and drama fiction). I miss him every day.

Treasuring moments and focusing on what is important to me has never been clearer. Through the miasma of fear and division that our tiny blue dot is suffering from, whether that be due to the pandemic, climate change, or the political and social hatreds that humanity suffers from, I continue to search and discover hope and inspiration in many forms. This is never more obvious to me than through art. Whether that art is in the form of stories/poetry, or music/song, or paintings/sculptures/crafts, or film/tv, each of us has the ability to tap into the creative and that creation expresses emotions that inspire and lift us above the storm clouds of racism, sexism, classism, ageism (and any other prejudicial “-ism” you can think of).

Getting my blog off the ground and exploring the spark generated through books, anime and film that I read and watch has inspired me to continue working on my own manuscripts. I will take a break for the rest of 2021 and spend time with my other sources of inspiration being my wife, kids, family and friends and will return to releasing new blogs in the new year. I hope you have enjoyed the book, anime and movie reviews that I have released these past few months. Rest assured I will continue releasing reviews come 2022, and I will also look to share some WIP (work-in-progress) of stories I’m writing and would welcome feedback.

Before signing off, I wanted to share one last bit of inspiration. In October of this year, one of the greatest songs of all time was released 50 years ago. To celebrate, the artist announced that he will be doing a concert tour starting in Honolulu in January 2022 and will perform throughout the US, UK and Europe culminating in his final concert in November 2022 in Austria. In total he will be performing 69 concerts!

The artist I’m referring to is Don McLean and his song “American Pie” was selected in 2017 for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.

To celebrate this iconic song, I found this A Cappella version by Anne Reburn (and her clones). I hope it inspires you to follow whatever dreams you are striving to make a reality. Enjoy!

Wishing you all a joyous and safe break as we wind down to the end of 2021. May it be filled with joy, laughter and good food. Peace to you all and thank you for taking the time to read my blog

Book Review: Saga (Volume 5) by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

TL;DR – roles change as Marko turns from hunted to hunter as he tries to track down his wife and daughter who have been kidnapped by Dengo, a commoner of the Robot kingdom looking to change the course of war.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to read reviews of previous volumes of this Eisner award winning series.

Dengo is on a mission. He now has Prince Robot IV’s baby son and Hazel in his possession along with control of the treehouse rocket ship. Alana and Klara are held prisoner inside and debate whether to make a move on Dengo. But before they can act, Dengo has contacted the Revolution, an organisation seeking to end the war between Landfall and Wreath by any means necessary, and they arrive to meet him.

For three months, Marko has been following Dengo’s trail. His tenuous alliance with Prince Robot IV is under constant strain as Marko refuses to kill to find his family. Prince Robot IV does not have such inhibitions, but the pair manage to continue their hunt with the help of Yuma and Ghus.

Events come to a head when Dengo realises the Revolution have their own agenda; they wish to trade Hazel to the Wreath high command in exchange for the release of revolutionary prisoners. Dengo and Alana manage to escape, but Klara and Hazel are re-captured and blast off inside the Revolution’s ship piloted by the remaining soldiers that are still alive.

This coincides with the arrival of Marko and Prince Robot IV. The prince confronts Dengo and kills him and is finally reunited with his baby son. Marko and Alana are also back together, but now they have to find their daughter.

Review

The opening pages of volume five reveals how the war between Landfall and Wreath damaged both spheres. On Landfall, people were chosen initially via lottery to defend the planet, but as the number of deaths mounted, it switched to a voluntary force. More importantly there was the underlying realisation that because Wreath was Landfall’s only moon, destroying either sphere would cause the other to spin out of orbit. As a result, the war spread outwards to new places in the galaxy considered of strategic value and meant other alien races had to choose sides and form alliances.

Fast forward to the lives of our intrepid fugitives, Marko and Alana, and a strange phenomenon has occurred. The war still rages on other planets but the majority of the population on Landfall and Wreath has ceased fighting.

The inference is that the political powers of Landfall and Wreath are continuing a galactic war for power and profit (as opposed to any sort of persecution between each side). This lends even more as to why the political powers don’t want Marko and Alana’s union to become public knowledge. For if a Landfallian and Wreather can fall in love and have a child, why are both sides still fighting? There are obviously puppet masters pulling the strings of war for their own gain and not the betterment of their people or the races of other civilisations.

Volume five continues to explore the impacts of war on individuals. Both the mental and emotional toll are revealed in varying forms. For example, Marko spirals into depression and nearly kills himself taking tainted drugs in an attempt to find peace. He is saved surprisingly by Prince Robot IV and in the process has a renewed focus on what is important in his life (i.e. his wife and daughter).

Then we have Yuma, the green spider-like alien who was once in a relationship with D. Oswald Heist. She has made a vow to live a life of sensuality, and achieves this by also taking the drug, Fadeaway. She admits to being a coward, but it is driven from a desire to live free from violence. Unfortunately, her choices lead to guilt, and she is driven to help Marko reunite with his family. In the end, she chooses to be brave and performs an act of sacrifice in order for Marko, Prince Robot IV and Ghus to stay alive.

While the volume examines other characters and the impacts of war on them, the last shout out goes to Dengo for his attempt to try and stop a war that has no interest in being stopped. As the reader, you know his part was always going to be short when he was willing to murder Princess Robot, kidnap the son and then also steal away Hazel from Marko and Alana. His intentions were to show the leaders of the Robot Kingdom that they cared more about working with the Landfallians than they did about the commoners who resided in the kingdom. When Dengo’s own son died of a treatable illness because all resources were focused on the war effort, he started on a path that would cost him his life.

It is the willingness to explore these rabbit holes and the post-traumatic stress of warfare that gives the story strength. I anticipate the exploration will continue by expanding on how children like Hazel and Prince Robot IV’s son will grow and what they are taught. Indeed, the end of volume five sees Hazel grown from toddler to child now learning in a classroom. The impression is that her parents have not found her and has somehow ended up an orphan. While it will be interesting to see if and when Hazel’s parents will find her again, the other story threads also ask questions of whether the war will ever end and even if it does, who will come out of it with their mental, physical and emotional well-being intact.

4 out of 5