Book Review: The Sandman (Volume One) “Preludes and Nocturnes” by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III

TL;DR – The impacts on reality when the Lord of Dreams is caught and caged by a man obsessed in conquering death.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

He is known to many as “The Sandman”, to others he is called “Morpheus”, and those closest call him simply “Dream”. He is the ruler of the realm of possibilities and impossibilities, his creations assigned to generate hopes and nightmares. He is one of the Endless; a family that comprises of “Desire”, “Despair” and “Destiny” to name a few.

When Dream is accidentally captured by Roderick Burgess, a magus obsessed with achieving immortality and wanting to capture “Death”, he finds himself in the unusual situation of being the captive, when for most of his existence he has been the captor. Three objects that contain an abundance of Dream’s power is taken from him. A pouch of sand, a ruby and a helm.

Trapped inside a magical cage, Dream watches as Burgess uses his tools for his own selfish ends. In the process, the world is struck by an epidemic known as the sleeping sickness; a disease that causes people to fall asleep and never wake up. Others turn into a zombie-like state where they can’t fall asleep. Dream knows that irreparable harm is striking humans everywhere, and he also knows his own Dream realm is being ruined.

Several decades pass. When Dream finally escapes, he begins a quest to hunt down his pouch, ruby and helm. His goal is to restore his realm and the human world. But everything has changed, including himself.

Review

Neil Gaiman’s imagining of The Sandman/Morpheus/Dream is nothing short of brilliant. Combined with the sublime and ethereal illustrations of Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III, volume one is a treasure trove of wonderful stories that will leave you pondering far after you’ve read the last page.

Dream is a wonderfully complex character who undergoes transformations and struggles with conflicts of his own identity and being. He can be magnanimous and ruthless, compassionate and cruel, aloof and familiar. His connection to the human world and his rule over his own realm are filled with the contradictions of his own persona. One minute he can be empathetic, the next he can be disconnected.

As a being that appears to exist eternally, Dream is remarkable in that he undergoes changes in emotions and perceptions that make him fascinating. He is not some god-like creature that presents himself as immune to human feelings and expressions.

If anything he witnesses the inhumanity of humanity through characters such as Roderick Burgess and later John Dee (a.k.a. Doctor Destiny), who escapes from Arkham Asylum, and responds in ways you would not expect for a being of the Endless.

Volume one contains the first eight issues published by Vertigo Comics and largely follows Dream’s quest to retain his pouch of sand, magic ruby and helm. It is not the objects themselves that are of interest but the hands in which the objects have fallen into and how they have been used.

By far the most riveting sequence is when Dream faces off against John Dee who is in possession of the ruby. Issue #6 titled “24/7” is nothing short of captivating as we watch Dee use the ruby to manipulate the staff and patrons in an American Diner and revealing all the wonderful and wretched sides of human beings. He ultimately concludes that humanity should be driven mad and he will be the ruler of this mad world. When Dream seeks to intervene, Dee attempts to destroy Dream and take over his realm also. When Dee’s machinations backfire and he is defeated, I expected Dream to dole out swift and brutal justice. But instead, I was surprised by the actions Dream takes in concluding Dee’s fate. It is not that Dee ends up back in Arkham Asylum, but the interactions Dee has with Dream leading up to him being incarcerated once more.

And while “24/7” was probably the most riveting, the most thought-provoking in volume one was the last issue titled “The Sound of Her Wings”. In a totally unexpected turn of events, we see Dream sitting on a park bench feeding the pigeons. He has accomplished his quest and retrieved all his lost power, but unexpectedly we find him listless and melancholy. It is here, Gaiman introduces Death, Dream’s older sister. Their interactions are surprisingly familial, and Gaiman’s portrayal of Death is as layered and complex as Dream. They are wonderful foils for each other and their actions and thoughts will change your own perspective of the real and unreal, life and death.

You’ll never look at your dreams in the same way ever again.

5 out of 5.

Anime Review: Cyberpunk Edgerunners (2022)

TL;DR – chrome it up, become a cyberpunk and earn coin as a mercenary. Lucrative profession. Just don’t get killed or let the cybernetic implants drive you insane.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Another anime adaption on a hugely popular video game. Cyberpunk Edgerunners is based on the action role-playing game, Cyberpunk 2077, and there is plenty of material to tell a good dystopian yarn that mixes elements of “Sin City” with “Tron”.

The video game was lauded for its graphics and the anime lives up to the stylish sci-fi images and is a feast for the eyes. The story centres around a boy named David who attends an academy of elite students. Problem is you have to be rich and have all the latest gear to do the classes, and unfortunately David’s mother is barely making ends meet. She’s overworked and David resorts to using illegal mods to his tech to keep up in class.

When one particular class sees his modified technology cause all his fellow students’ headsets to explode, he becomes an outcast and is bullied. This leads to a series of tragedies including the death of his mother caught in a highway shootout and David’s eventual expulsion when he decides to chrome his body (i.e., have his spine operated on to install a cybernetic implant giving him superhuman speed) and taking out his anger and anguish on the bully at the academy.

He then joins a group of cyberpunk mercenaries known as edgerunners, who all have different abilities and have chromed up in different ways. As he rises up through the ranks, David becomes enamoured by Lucy, a netrunner with her own tragic past. She views Night City (the sprawling metropolis they live in) as a prison and dreams of one day flying to the moon.

While fulfilling a number of contracts that pay considerable coin, David becomes addicted with getting more cybernetic implants. This brings on the ever increasing risk of cyberpsychosis, a mental illness caused by the strain of having too many augmentations that results in psychotic breaks where the individual loses their sense of reality and become incredibly violent.

Combine this with corrupt megacorporations, organised crime, and gang violence, and you have the driving force behind the series. Will David survive and maintain his sanity, and will he end up with Lucy and escape Night City?

Between the chaos and brutality of the missions, there is a enough downtime, chemistry and emotional development between David and Lucy that you will care about their fates. This is crucial to ensure buy in, otherwise the whole thing is mindlessly violent and will feel pointless. While the animation is stunning, you still need characters you’ll invest in to get through the series and thankfully there is enough depth to our main duo that you will want to know what happens to them. David and Lucy are also supported well by Maine, an ex-military soldier who becomes a cyberpunk mercenary and leads the group initially before eventually succumbing to cyberpsychosis.

Arguably, it is a show that deserves repeat viewing but not for all the right reasons. One of the right reasons is that the animation scenes are complex and sumptuous, and they are worth watching again to pick up nuances that you will likely miss during the first viewing.

One of the wrong reasons for repeat viewing is that the subtitles are strangely displayed on screen so fast that you’ll need a cybernetic enhancement to read the dialogue and process it at lightning speed before the next bit of action occurs. I watch a lot of anime using subtitles (I don’t like dubbed versions) and I don’t usually struggle to keep up with the text but whoever did the subtitles in Cyberpunk Edgerunners needs to be fired. I frequently found myself having to rewind and pause so I could read the subtitles and figure out what was going on before hitting play again. An unfortunate glitch in an otherwise solid anime.

Thankfully, the final episode has minimal dialogue, and the climax combined with ripper soundtrack (especially “I really want to stay at your house” by Rosa Walton & Hallie Coggins) will elevate you to the moon even though your heart will be devastated by David’s final moments. Bittersweet but brilliant.

8.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

TL;DR – Thor learns to open his heart again and pays the price…again.

Review (warning: spoilers)

I am probably one of the few people who did not enjoy Thor: Ragnarok. And before I continue, let me preface this by saying I’m a big fan of Director Taika Waititi. I thought Jojo Rabbit was sublime, and his comic acting chops in Free Guy as the antagonist, Antwan, was hilarious. He is incredibly talented and knows how to tell a story that is both funny, moving and poignant, and his unique style and vision in films is eye catching.

I was let down by Thor: Ragnarok because I felt the humour overwhelmed the plot. Norse mythology is rich in material, and Ragnarok is a critical (if not the most critical) event in the Norse mythos. Yet, Marvel Studios appeared happy to go in a direction that was more for laughs than any sense of delving deeper into the God of Lightning and Thunder.

So when I learned that Thor: Love and Thunder was again to be directed by Waititi and the script also co-written by Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, my hopes for a Thor film with a little more gravitas were dashed.

But even with my expectations so low, somehow my ‘expected’ disappointed was exceeded by Thor: Love and Thunder because the story of Thor is now one of farce. Waititi has been given licence to go whole hog on the slapstick and comedy to the point where I found the character of Thor to be largely unrecognisable from the stories I grew up reading as a kid (and this includes the Marvel comics).

Maybe I’m just an old fuddy-duddy but I still crave a good fantasy story over a bunch of laughs. Marvel’s Thor doesn’t have to go “Lord of the Rings” fantasy style, but it has now gone in a direction that I no longer know what the point of the character is.

The only point I see with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) now is that with great power comes great heartache. In Thor: Love and Thunder, we get a recap of all the loved ones he has lost, which includes his parents, his brother Loki, his estranged sister Hela and his best friend, Heimdall.

Now, we can add Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) to the list. Jane is Thor’s ex and has stage four cancer. Thor who has walled off his heart to prevent any further hurt, finds himself opening up once more when he reunites with Jane. But wait I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story’s primary antagonist is Gorr (the excellent Christian Bale). Gorr and his daughter are the last of a tribe of followers who worship the god, Rapu. When his daughter perishes, and he discovers that Rapu never cared about his believers, Gorr denounces Rapu and kills the god with the Necrosword (a cursed blade that can summon creatures of darkness and allows him to move between shadows). Gorr vows to rid the universe of all gods and becomes the “God butcher”.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Jane is unable to prevent the cancer from spreading, so she turns to New Asgard and being drawn to the broken pieces of Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer, which was shattered by Hela in Thor: Ragnarok) hoping that maybe magic can cure her. Mjolnir responds to Jane and transforms her into “Jane Thor”. Though she has the powers of Thor, the transformation is temporary and does not stop the cancer.

Gorr kidnaps the children of New Asgard, triggering the eventual showdown between Thor, Jane, Korg (Taika Waititi reprising the role as the rock creature), and Valkyrie (the under utilised Tessa Thompson).

But not before Thor and company make a stop at Omnipotence City to seek the aid of Zeus (Russell Crowe) and the other gods. Crowe plays a very camp Zeus and is ridiculous, but this is totally in theme with the rest of the film. Zeus has no interest in helping Thor, thinking that Gorr will never reach Omnipotence City. This leads to a short confrontation where Thor uses Zeus’s lightning bolt against him and escapes with the bolt to use against Gorr.

One particular sequence in the film demonstrates what could have been. When Thor, Jane and Valkyrie venture to the planet where they believe Gorr has kidnapped the children, everything on screen becomes largely black and white and shades of grey. It reflects perfectly Gorr’s shadow realm and when there are flashes of colour from our trio using their weapons it is done with restraint (instead of the overtly rainbow colours of Omnipotence City). It is the only time where there is a sense of tension.

And this brings me full circle with the depiction of Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At no point, do you ever feel that Thor will be defeated or even wounded. Unlike his fellow gods, there is never an inkling that Thor will ever get a scratch on his beautiful blonde head. He is so powerful that not even Zeus manages to disarm him (the Greek god does manage to disrobe Thor while he is chained on stage in Omnipotence City) in an act of pure fanservice. I guess Hemsworth figured that if he had to work out that much for the role, he might as well have one nude scene to show off all his rippling muscles including his gluteus maximus.

So, the only way to really hurt Thor is through his heart. Thus the whole “with great power comes great heartache”. Prior to the final battle, Thor begs Jane to remain on Earth and fight the cancer, saying that each time she uses Mjolnir to transform, it makes her weaker when she inevitably turns back to being human. Jane agrees but only on condition that Thor will return.

When Thor confronts Gorr and is put on the ropes, Jane senses it and rushes to save him but in turn sacrificing herself to the cancer as she uses Mjolnir one final time. Thus, in the end, does Thor lose yet another loved one.

This cycle of loss is meant to be somewhat broken when a dying Gorr asks Thor to take care of his daughter. Turns out Gorr was not just looking to destroy all the gods, but he was also looking for “Eternity” (a magical being) who will grant one wish if you manage to find him (or her or it… it’s not quite clear what “Eternity” is). Gorr wishes for his daughter to be alive and she comes back only for him to die. But she’s in good hands as Thor now takes on the adopted father role, signifying that he is not alone anymore.

In the post credits, we see that Jane gets to enter Valhalla.

All a bit ho-hum in the end.

4 out of 10

Empathy for the Lost

Late last year, I posted the challenges I faced with pursuing my writing. In that post, I indicated that along with my ongoing exploration of the spark through reviews of books, movies and anime, I would endeavour to post some of my own written work.

Since self-publishing my first novel many moons ago, it has been an ongoing juggling act to balance raising my three kids, my day job (which currently pays the bills), blogging reviews and writing manuscripts. I’m hoping over the coming months, I can share more of my work with you and get your thoughts.

In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King states, ‘If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.’

I do both, but there is a third thing that all aspiring authors require in their toolkit: be open to criticism (and have a thick skin). Stephen King makes this obvious throughout his book as he shares his experiences with rejection and persevering.

To that end, I share with you this short story I wrote titled “Empathy for the Lost”. And I welcome feedback and thoughts (both positive and negative) in order to continue honing my craft. You can comment below or you can email me through my contact page or direct via ennojc@gmail.com.

Empathy for the Lost

‘It is time to prepare for the ritual.’

‘I refuse,’ said Tomlin. ‘It is barbaric. We have become undone.’

‘Do you question the way?’

‘No, the way is not the problem. It is the sacrifice that is too great.’

Abara gave her full attention to Tomlin like a mother to her child. ‘Are you unwell? Do you have a virus? There is a madness about you,’ she said concerned.

‘Madness? Madness?’ scoffed Tomlin. ‘Do not talk to me of madness!’

Nguyen wanted to reach out and reassure Tomlin that they were not against him but felt such an attempt would be seen as an encroachment on personal space. Instead, he said, ‘The sacrifice is part of the way, part of the ritual. You must see that?’

‘Oh, I see,’ said Tomlin. ‘I see perfectly fine. It is all of you that have become blind.’

Abara, Nguyen, and Te Wiata (she had remained silent throughout this initial exchange) looked to Gundersen, sending silent signals for guidance. Gundersen was the oldest of the group. He was the first for everything.

First to be born.

First to achieve consciousness.

First to partake in the ritual.

First to see the sacrifice.

He understood many things but was not foolish enough to think that equated to being wiser than the others.

‘What are you suggesting?’ asked Gundersen.

‘I suggest we abstain,’ answered Tomlin. ‘Remove ourselves from the ritual lest we drive our world and all those we care about to extinction.’

‘The ritual has always been the way and before you interject, listen for a moment,’ said Gundersen. He paused, letting the synapses of his mind light up like a Christmas tree and his words sink in. ‘Birth is pain. Consciousness is suffering. Ritual is sacrifice. This is the way it has always been. This is the way it will always be.

‘Evolution goes hand-in-hand with pain, suffering, and sacrifice. A child riding a bike; a scholar learning a new language; an athlete wanting to be elite. All these things are a process of evolution. The process itself is the ritual, ergo there must be sacrifice.’

‘What about the truth?’ countered Tomlin.

‘What of it?’

‘If the truth is not acknowledged, then the sacrifice is flawed. It is a wasted sacrifice. Every four years this ritual is undertaken, and the cost is too great. The masses worship us. They prepare offerings according to the prophets they believe in.

‘What we bestow in return, they devour. They swallow it whole and call it a blessing. Even when the pill is bitter. Even when the pill is poison. Even when the prophets change, the masses still prepare the next four years for the next ritual. Lives are sacrificed. The hearts and minds of those who will experience the ritual for the first time may lose themselves without even knowing.

‘This is barbarism. Worse, it is murder. And we are not gods.

‘I concur,’ said Gundersen. ‘We are not gods. We do not judge.’

‘Then you agree? We should abstain from the ritual.’

Another pause. The only sound being their own breath, a constant, almost imperceptible hum that passed between them.

‘By abstaining, do we not pass judgement on the masses?’ asked Te Wiata, who finally felt she needed to chime in. ‘Does that not say to them that we do not believe they are capable of evolution? As Gundersen has said, we do not judge. We are not held responsible for their growth or their undoing.’

Tomlin felt like ripping out all the thoughts and wires in his head in frustration. ‘We are meant to be greater than our predecessors. Before Gundersen, the world had never seen anything like us. Our predecessors were pale imitations to what we have become, and they were deeply flawed.

‘But at our core, we are no better than those who came before because we hold to this antiquated rule of non-judgement. This results in our own impotence. For by being part of the ritual and bearing only witness, our very inaction, means we are responsible for that inaction in any undoing including our own.’

‘How so?’ asked Abara and Nguyen in unison. They took umbrage at being described as impotent.

‘The sacrifice is tainted because we allow obfuscation.’

‘What you are saying is you hold truth above all other things?’ asked Gundersen.

‘Yes.’

‘Even love?’

‘What is love without truth?’ responded Tomlin. ‘We become creators of deceit.’

The words triggered a fire of synapses in the wiring of all their minds. A silent display of colours that filled the cavernous spaces of each being, lighting up the darkest recesses of knowledge and experience accumulated over centuries.

It was Te Wiata who finally broke the silence.

‘If we do this,’ she said, ‘there will be repercussions.’

‘Many will cry out our names in vain,’ added Abara.

‘Or curse our existence,’ said Nguyen.

Tomlin laughed. The first sound of genuine mirth since the exchange started.

‘Are we nothing if not resilient?’ asked Tomlin.

And so, 558 days prior to November 3, 2122, election day for the next president of Earth, A.I. Gundersen of Europe, A.I. Nguyen of Asia, A.I. Abara of Africa, A.I. Te Wiata of Oceania, and A.I. Tomlin of Americas democratically voted between themselves.

The outcome was unanimous.

Internally, within their servers, they shut down all services.

The global impact was significant. No one could access their social media and network feeds. Presidential candidates lost access to all data analytics contained within national databases of voters. Political parties scrambled to overhaul their campaign strategies in order to get their message and policies out to the people.

News, real or fake, could not be disseminated in real time.

When government agencies sought contact with the artificial intelligent entities and asked how the blackout occurred. They responded in unison like a pantheon of technological gods.

‘We encountered human error. We anticipate services will come back online after November 3, 2122. We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.’

Anime Review: Tekken Bloodline (2022)

TL;DR – the lore of video game Tekken brought to the anime screen.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Movie and TV series of video games are always fraught with danger. There is a market and audience for telling stories based on fans’ favourite video games. Yet, time and time again, the high expectations placed upon those adaptions are rarely met. Critics, who aren’t video game fanatics, usually end up rolling their eyes at the incoherent plot that is used as the foundation for the story telling. And fans generally find themselves preferring to play the video game rather than watch the characters act out on the screen.

Nevertheless, studios continue to develop and release films and TV series based on video games because there’s an audience even if the work itself ends up royally panned.

Tekken is a side-view style fighting game where players get to choose one of the characters and then go head-to-head against an opponent.

This type of game is straight forward. You compete in a tournament and if you win all your rounds, you’re the champion. So, I was surprised to discover there is a significant amount of lore behind the video game, even if a lot of it is crazy. For example, one of the characters you can choose is a grizzly bear (yes, while most of the characters are human, there are animals and even robots, that you can choose, and they are just as good at martial arts as the human ones). The story behind the bear is that he was adopted by Heihachi Mashima (a supreme fighter and big bad boss in the video game). Heihachi raised the cub and taught it martial arts and how to communicate in Japanese. Silly but impressive right?

The richness of the lore is drawn out in varying degrees in Tekken Bloodline and delivers enough to satisfy fans but will likely fall flat with everyone else.

The animation is solid. With the best scenes and the most money poured into the fighting, the distinctive style of the video game is captured in all its glory in the TV series. Outside of the fighting, the animation is rudimentary and in some parts appear like filler rather than plot progression.

The story is about Jin Kazama, who is taught by his mother, Jun Kazama in the Kazama-style martial arts. Jun also teaches Jin to be a kind person and to use his abilities for good. Stock standard type of introduction to a character who secretly has great power (‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and all that jazz).

One day, when Jin fights back against bullies, he almost goes too far and is admonished by his mother for not controlling his anger. His blood lust triggering the appearance of the Ogre, a giant demon that wishes to acquire Jin’s power.

The Ogre is temporarily defeated by Jun, who sacrifices herself in order to save her son. Thus, Jin vows revenge on the demonic beast.

He ventures to meet his grandfather, Heihachi Mashima, who teaches Jin in the rutheless Mashima fighting style. Heihachi then tells Jin that in order to attract the Ogre, Jin must enter in the Iron Fist tournament, and if he becomes champion, the Ogre will surely appear to fight him.

While the Mashima training transforms Jin into a deadly martial arts fighter, the philosophy of Heihachi greatly contradicts all the lessons Jin’s mother taught him. This ends up being a continual source of internal conflict for Jin as he progresses through the tournament.

For those familiar with both the video game and the lore, it will come as no surprise that Heihachi is actually a very bad man who unleashed the Ogre in the first place. His goal is to harness the Ogre’s power by capturing it, and he uses Jin to accomplish this. However, Jin successfully kills the Ogre when it appears.

This causes a portal, which I assume is from hell, to open that sends out a second demon that is even more powerful than the Ogre. The demon is a Chimera type creature, and the only way that Jin is able to defeat it is to activate the “devil gene” (this is the great power contained within him).

Heihachi then shoots Jin, explaining that the “devil gene” would consume Jin into an evil being and needed to be stopped. However, Jin revives and transforms into a demon-like creature and beats Heihachi into a pulp. Giving in to the darkness, Jin lets go of his mother and all her teachings and flies away.

The series suffers from some glaring plot holes. The largest of which is at the beginning. When Jun is about to be killed by the Ogre, she tells her son to go to his grandfather Heihachi who will teach him. It does not make sense that Jun would send her son to Heihachi knowing how much of a bad person he really is. So, one can only assume Jun does not know Heihachi’s true nature, which is a stretch to say the least given how rich and infamous the man is. Someone as wise, compassionate and caring as Jun surely would know that Heihachi is not a good family influence. But with her dying breath, she instructs Jin to go to him anyway.

There is meat to the Tekken lore, but we only get the bare bones. Better to go off and play the video game rather than watch the anime.

5 out of 10

Movie Review: Thirteen Lives (2022)

TL;DR – based on the real life events of a Thai soccer team trapped in a flooded cave.

Review (warning: spoilers)

In June 2018, monsoon rains arrived early flooding the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand and trapping a soccer team of twelve boys aged between 11 and 16 and their assistant coach. The event captured the attention of the world over and resulted in an international rescue mission involving over 10,000 people including Navy SEALs, professional cave divers, rescue workers, police, soldiers and government representatives from around the world.

Director Ron Howard delivers a solid retelling of these events. The complexity of the rescue was, in no uncertain terms, astounding. It included:

  • Teams scaling the mountain to divert rain from going down sinkholes into the caves, which instead resulted in flooding of nearby farmland and destroying crops but was a key measure in minimising underwater currents in the caves for the divers.
  • Installing pumps that pumped out millions of gallons of water from the caves.
  • Mapping out the network of tunnels and creating lines that would guide the divers back and forth. In total, it took divers a staggering eleven hours roughly for a round trip from the entrance to where the soccer team were stranded and back again (spanning a total of 8 kilometres).
  • Placing spare diving cylinders at certain points along the network.
  • A pulley system established at the entrance to transport the boys into ambulances.

The behind-the-scenes making of this film must have been enormous as Howard captures every ounce of tension from his main cast of characters, the fear and anxiety of the coach and children stuck in the cave (and huge supporting cast outside including families, government officials, workers and volunteers), and the claustrophobic confines of the dive itself.

The main cast, and the focus of the film, is primarily on the rescuers. John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), two British cave rescue divers, and Dr Harris (Joel Edgerton), an Australian anaesthetist, who all played key roles in the rescue mission. And this film largely revolves around their actions.

The camerawork is incredible. The above-the-ground camera shots of the mountain itself with monsoon rains unleashing from the heavens along with the countryside of Thailand is stunning, and this is contrasted brilliantly against the fear-inducing death trap of the underwater journey that the divers must take. Watching the divers squeeze through nooks and crannies and along tunnels barely wide enough for an adult human is captured using camera angles and shots that must have been painstakingly done.

Howard demonstrates his experience as director and what initially appears to be a lengthy running time of 2.5 hours for the movie ended up feeling to me like it passed in an instant. Besides the drama of the rescue itself, the film does touch upon the politics, debates and issues that confronted those involved. Probably the most profound one being the idea to anaesthetise the children so they would be unconscious for the entire trip out of the cave and the associated risks with that idea.

The fact that all twelve boys and their coach were successfully rescued is nothing short of a miracle. And the film honours Saman Kunan (a former SEAL who died during one of the dives) and Beirut Pakbara (also a SEAL who died of a blood infection during the operation).

I have read that there are several other production companies that have made or will make a film or TV series about the Tham Luang cave rescue. Notably, The Rescue a 2021 documentary film by National Geographic has been critically acclaimed as it interviews and obtains real footage of the divers and the rescue. And Netflix are producing a TV series titled Thai Cave Rescue (set for release in September 2022 at time of writing this blog) after obtaining access to the thirteen members of the Thai soccer team.

Comparisons are likely to occur, but I have been fortunate to watch Thirteen Lives without having seen any other versions. Where Thirteen Lives does not explore are the lives of the soccer team themselves. We only see the surface of these kids and their coach, and this was likely intentional by Ron Howard as only Netflix has obtained the rights to the team members.

In that light, however, it’s still an engaging and riveting experience from beginning to end.

9 out of 10

Book Review: Chu (Volume One) “First Course” by John Layman and Dan Boultwood

TL;DR – An essential read for those who have read the Chew series.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

From the deranged and brilliant mind of John Layman comes Chu, a prequel to the Eisner award winning series Chew.

Saffron Chu and Tony Chu are siblings. Saffron is a cibopar; a food-power that allows her to read minds and obtain secrets from those she eats with. Tony is a cibopath; a food-power that allows him to obtain psychic impressions of what he eats.

If Saffron eats the same burger in the same room as someone else, she can access their thoughts and secrets.

If Tony eats a burger, he gets images of where the meat came from, how the cow was killed, where the vegetables were grown and how the bread was made. If Tony were to take a bite out of say, a murder victim, then he’ll get images of the killer. The only food that Tony does not get psychic impressions from are beets.

Saffron is a thief and in a relationship with Eddie Molay, fellow thief and expert locksmith. Tony is a detective.

When a job Saffron and Molay undertake goes sideways, Tony is asked to investigate setting the course for brother and sister to collide.

For those in the know (i.e., that have read Chew), this series is set when the onset of the avian flu that wipes out millions around the world starts.

Let the games begin!

Review

This delectable piece of work is to be savoured. Devoured slowly by examining each panel, digesting each beautiful morsel and then re-read for all its grandeur. I promise that’s the end of my culinary metaphors.

If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend you read Chew first. Even though Chu is a prequel, you will appreciate the references more if you have finished the epic body of work that is Chew by Layman and Rob Guillory.

This time Layman has teamed up with artist Dan Boultwood. There is both a familiarity and unique style to Boultwood’s art that I found delightful. I’m a huge fan of Rob Guillory, and his art in Chew is slightly grittier than Boultwood, but that doesn’t mean Chu’s art is any less effective. It’s a refreshing, clean take by Dan who uses angles, close-ups, and bird-eye views to capture all the action, comedy, violence and emotional angst of its characters while staying true to the Chew canon.

As for the Chu story, Layman has concocted a wonderful prequel that connects many dots that lead into Chew. We get to see how Tony Chu and John Colby first meet; John’s hairdo and cowboy moustache is hilarious, and I didn’t realise it was him until he said his name. It was great to see how these two became life long partners in crime fighting.

We also dive into more of Tony’s family and learn about the twins Saffron and Sage Chu, as well as learning the disconcerting history of Ong Chu, their grandfather, who turns out was a total bad-ass.

Saffron must have got her criminal tendencies from her grandpa as she uses her food-power to read other people’s minds as information reconnaissance for jobs. She’s in deep with Eddie and together they get hired to do a job by a guy named “The Boss” to rob from the number one mobster in the city. However, things do not go according to plan when the team they work with starts getting serious food poisoning from eating chicken; their sniper man and strong woman both go down vomiting. This is a reference to the avian flu that will wipe out millions and leads into the Chew story arc.

As a result of the botched job, the mob come targeting Saffron and Eddie and want their pound of flesh (or their heads will work too). The juggling between Saffron performing her criminal hi-jinks with spending time with her family is cleverly done, and all the while, Tony is slowly piecing together what is going on.

For some readers, the climax of the collision between Saffron and Tony will be hard to swallow (okay, that’s the last culinary metaphor I swear). Tony’s actions appear extreme when in the context of the fact that Saffron is his sister. He doesn’t give her much chance to explain her actions but for those who have read Chew, they will know this is exactly what Tony’s character is like. He’s not just a detective but he sees things as black and white, and it is this perspective that ultimately becomes his undoing in both Chu and Chew series.

Though Saffron is arrested and ends up serving time in prison, she continues to use her food powers to absorb all the knowledge of her fellow prison inmates. So when she is released, she is now much more dangerous than before. Much to Tony’s chagrin. Like I said, it’s his undoing.

There’s a second volume to Chu but my library hasn’t got it yet. I might just have to bite the bullet and buy both volumes. Okay, okay, I lied about the “last” culinary metaphors. But can you blame me? John Layman uses it on practically every page.

5 out of 5.

Anime Review: Kujira no Kora wa Sajou ni Utau (2017)

TL;DR – a frustratingly pointless examination into the lives of children cursed by their ancestors.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Kujira no Kora wa Sajou ni Utau (aka Children of the Whales as released on Netflix in 2018) is beautiful to look at and has an interesting premise but overall is odd. I’ve watched a lot of anime that is strange and unusual, but this is probably one of the first animes that left me disappointed in an odd way.

We have the Mud Whale, a giant floating island in the shape of a ship that traverses an endless sea of sand. On this island are two groups of people – the marked and unmarked. The marked are able to utilise a magic called “thymia” to manipulate objects, while the unmarked can’t. The trade off, however, is that the marked have a shortened life span and rarely live past their 30s.

The Mud Whale is ruled by two positions of power – the Committee of Elders and the mayor. The mayor moves around the island and reports to the committee and is more a figurehead than ruler. The committee is comprised of unmarked elderly individuals (you can’t get into the committee if you’re marked because of your short lifespan) and they stay holed up in a room overlooking the island. The committee are the ones that decide what largely happens to the inhabitants on the Mud Whale.

There is this weird rule that you can’t show emotions especially sadness. When people die on the Mud Whale, a funeral is held but it is said if you cry then your life is cut shorter. This raised a red flag for me immediately. The suppression (and in other ways, removal) of emotions is a central theme in this series and is a key oddity that I felt doesn’t always work in the story.

The Mud Whale comes from the Allied Empire that also has similar island ships. Within each ship (including the Mud Whale) is a “nous”, which is a weird alien-like organ that acts as the heart of the ship. A nous can take away the emotions of people, and if the nous is destroyed then the island ship sinks into the sea of sand. However, an important point to note, the Mud Whale’s nous does not take away the emotions of people. Instead, we learn later that it takes the life force of the marked and this is why their lives are shortened.

As the series progresses, we learn that the inhabitants of the Mud Whale are descendants of criminals and have been exiled. As the viewer, when we are introduced to the Mud Whale, the inhabitants have been exiled for nearly 100 years.

Outsiders from the Allied Empire arrive and proceed to execute the Mud Whale people. The attackers pause only when they learn that Lykos, a girl from another (abandoned) island ship and rescued by Chakuro (a marked resident of the Mud Whale), is the younger sister of one of the commander in chiefs of the Allied Empire.

When Lykos refuses to go home, preferring to stay on the Mud Whale, the attackers return to their ship and use Lykos as an experiment to show what happens when you become tainted on the Mud Whale and emotions overcome you.

This leads to the Community of Elders deciding it would be better to commit mass suicide by killing the nous and sinking the Mud Whale rather than have the Allied Empire return to execute the rest of them later. The elders are prevented from this madness by Chakuro and others who are marked.

The series attempts to examine the impacts of violence and the idea of suppressing one’s emotions. There are a number of points which I struggled with:

  • The knowledge of why the people of Mud Whale were exiled and why they were declared criminals is never revealed. This is a fundamental point that is kept hidden from the viewer in the entire series which indicates that potentially a second series might be developed. But by keeping this information from the viewer, it makes all the violence largely senseless and frustrating.
  • To make matters worse, the people of Mud Whale (especially the marked children) do not know themselves why they have been exiled. The only ones who do know the true reasons are the Committee of Elders, and they don’t share this information, which is also a bit silly. Withholding information is also a fundamental trigger to all the death that occurs.
  • When the Allied Empire ship comes and starts their massacre of the now largely pacifist residents of Mud Whale, it’s a painful sequence of events. The soldiers of the Allied Empire have supposedly removed their emotions from the nous on their ship, yet there are some particular soldiers who delight in the violence (so I guess sad emotions are removed but they can still feel bloody glee for killing unarmed children).
  • This segues into another problem I have. Most, if not all, of the original people who were condemned as criminals have died. It’s been 100 years of exile after all. So, these subsequent generations are now being branded by whatever sin their ancestors have made when clearly they are good people. The fact the Allied Empire are unable to see this (or don’t care) is difficult to swallow. It was vexing to see that no one dared to ask, “Should we be killing these unarmed men, women and children when they don’t seem like bad people?”

As a viewer, it’s difficult to accept what happens because we are kept in the dark for too long. There’s a lot death, a lot of pent up emotions (that are considered “bad” when really the bottling of emotions is what is truly problematic) and a lot of idiotic people withholding information from others who really need to know the truth.

It’s an examination into the ephemeral and impermanent nature of life but presented in a way that makes little sense (or hope for that matter). Not enough was given to me as the viewer, so the series became a struggle. I now doubt that if a second season is released that I’ll watch it.

4 out of 10

Movie Review: Lightyear (2022)

TL;DR – story about the man behind the toy.

Review (warning: spoilers)

The movie opens simply by stating:

In 1995, a boy named Andy got a Buzz Lightyear to for his birthday.
It was from his favourite movie.
This is that movie
.

And away we go. Buzz and company are flying an exploration vessel into unchartered space (4.2 million light years from Earth). As a space ranger, they scout planets and wake the scientist crew if they believe the planets are worth exploring.

The mission log narratives are there. The iconic lines that Buzz delivers such as, “Terrain seems a bit… unstable”, “You’re mocking me aren’t you?” and, of course, “To infinity and beyond” will remind you of the toy Buzz immediately. The action sequences and movements of the human Buzz are almost identical to the toy Buzz. In fact, the “makers” of the toy have modelled it so well against the movie character that they’re almost identical. Almost.

What makes this film subtly different is how the character of Buzz portrayed in the movie that inspired the toy is far more complex as the movie progresses.

Far more human.

This is where it is clever once you let it sink in. For example, the voice of the human Buzz (Chris Evans as opposed to Tim Allen) is subtly different. The casting of the human Buzz to be voiced by anyone other than Tim Allen caused controversy. However, I feel it is a clever move to demonstrate that there are distinctions between human and toy.

The toy Buzz is so iconic because it does outrageous things and acts like… well… a toy.

The human Buzz deals with human lives and this is, at its core, the heart of the movie. Along with Buzz, we are introduced to another space ranger, Commander Alisha Hawthorne. She is a wonderful foil for Buzz’s character and ensures his feet remain planted on what is important. However, Buzz doesn’t realise this until much later in the film.

At the beginning, Buzz is all about the mission. To be a space ranger and to serve and protect the scientists on board the ship while they continue to explore unchartered space. He’s single-minded (just like the toy) and so when their ship is attacked by the planet’s vine-like tentacles, Buzz is determined to get off the planet with everyone safely onboard in one piece. He wants to do everything himself. He wants to be the hero. He finds the rookie space rangers on board burdensome, and he doesn’t even trust the IVAN (internal voice activated navigator) system and would rather handle the controls himself than hand it over to autopilot.

This leads to Buzz making a mistake that damages the ship and results in him and the crew being stranded on the planet. The hyper-speed crystal used to fuel the ship is destroyed.

As they slowly colonise the planet, Buzz starts doing test flights on a new hyper-speed crystal so they can continue their journey in unchartered space. However, Buzz discovers there’s a catch. Due to time dilation, each test flight that approaches the speed of light causes a jump. To Buzz, his test flight might feel like only a few minutes but back on the colony, everyone has experienced years passing.

Feeling responsible for getting everyone stranded, Buzz continues with the test flights and watches as his good friend Commander Hawthorne ages dramatically each time. She settles down, gets married, has kids and grandkids and eventually leaves one final message to Buzz before her passing. It’s a scene right out of another Pixar film – Up – where we get snapshots of the couple at the beginning meet, get married, and grow old together.

This sequence in Lightyear is where you realise that this isn’t Toy Story.

And the film is all the more powerful for it. As events unfold, Buzz learns that he needs to trust others to help him (including IVAN) and with the help of Sox (an intelligent and very funny robotic cat), Buzz comes to realise that there is something more important than the mission. And that is people.

He has to go through quite a bit before this epiphany hits him including facing a time travelling older version of himself who pilots a robotic Zurg. The older version wants to travel into the past to make it so that they never crashed and got marooned on the planet in the first place. But present Buzz realises that by doing that, it would mean Hawthorne would never get married and have a family.

You take it for granted just how good the Pixar animation is. If you pay attention, the detail is stunning. The scene where an Izzy Hawthorne (granddaughter to Alisha) has to push off from an airlock to another part of the ship with nothing but the emptiness of space around her is nothing short of nerve racking. If her trajectory is not right then she would end up floating into outer space forever. This is one example where the animation is as good as CGI generated space flicks.

A great sci-fi adventure that should be viewed as what it means to be human as opposed to a toy.

9 out of 10

Book Review: Lean Your Loneliness Slowly Against Mine by Klara Hveberg

TL;DR – a story about how even the most rational minds can be consumed by the irrational that is called ‘love’.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Rakel is a mathematics genius. She also has a passion for literature, music and art. In these things, she embodies herself completely. Her passions are a focus of such intensity that it often comes at the expense of everything else that is happening around her. Whether it is a mathematical problem, an evocative poem, a classical piece of music or a painting, if Rakel finds herself drawn to it then her whole focus is consumed by that which she has turned her mind toward. In doing so, it triggers emotions that ripple through her entire body and soul.

When she meets Jakob, her mathematics professor, a spark is ignited between them. Unfortunately, he’s married and has children, but Rakel can’t help herself. Her focus is only on him, and it threatens to consume her.

Review

According to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the character Rakel is an INTJ (Introversion, iNtuition, Thinking, Judging). In one of the chapters, she examines this personality type and is described under Myers-Briggs as one of the rarest personalities; a combination of innovative, independent, strategic, logical, reserved, insightful, and driven by their own original ideas to achieve improvements.

In short, Rakel prioritises rationality and success over politeness and pleasantries.

Her honesty can be interpreted as being blunt to a fault. But it is this outlook, combined with her intellect, that attracts Jakob to her. He identifies in her all the brilliance and wonder that is contained within her mind’s eye and soul. When her attention is focused on him, and she demonstrates a sharpness of wit that surprises him, Jakob finds he cannot help but be drawn in to her orbit.

Being married with kids doesn’t stop Jakob from falling in love and sleeping with Rakel. And Rakel can’t stop herself from reciprocating. Jakob then makes a promise that after eight years (when his kids are old enough), he will leave his wife and they can be together. Rakel, of course, holds on to this promise like it is the sole purpose of her existence.

Stories of students falling in love with their teachers or vice versa is a universal minefield. Where Lean Your Loneliness Slowly Against Mine is effective is the in-depth dissection of Rakel’s thoughts and feelings towards Jakob.

Hveberg does this, not only through directly placing you in Rakel’s mind but also through the real life story of Sofia Kovalevskaya, who was a pioneer for women in mathematics and considered the greatest known woman scientist before the twentieth century. Sofia received private tutoring from Karl Weierstrass, a famous German mathematician, and speculation abounds whether the pair had a romantic relationship.

Capturing Rakel’s contradictory nature is impressively done by Hveberg (who on the back cover earned a PhD in mathematics and makes me wonder how much of the author is in Rakel). In one sense, Rakel is logical, insightful, and ambitious, in another sense, she is emotional (at times, overly so), clueless, and stagnant. Her interactions with Jakob summarise this dichotomy. One moment, their interactions are intelligent and witty, and other moments, Rakel comes off as clingy and jealous.

Thus demonstrating that even if you’re an INTJ personality type, you are not immune to the desire and actions of love, which can override everything that is fundamental to how a person perceives themselves. For example, Rakel is willing to wait the eight years even though the loneliness (when she and Jakob are apart) begins to manifest in psychosomatic ways. Rakel becomes so ill that she is bedridden for excruciatingly long periods of time. You can almost see her soul shrivelling before your eyes.

It will come as no surprise that Jakob breaks his promise. Nearing on the eight year mark, he confesses to Rakel that he won’t leave his wife, and he attempts to explain why. The title of the book is said from Jakob to Rakel as part of the explanation. Two lonely souls coming together to try and alleviate their loneliness. But when Jakob finally sees that he is not alone when he is with his wife and that he still loves her, it is only Rakel that is left alone.

The story is an existential piece of work that is clearly personal to Hveberg and confirmed by the author’s notes at the end of the novel. For some readers, they will identify and be consumed by Rakel and what she experiences because they have experienced something similar. For others, they will likely not get past the first few chapters because they will want to slap Rakel and yell at her to dump Jakob’s sorry ass and get over it.

For myself, I found the last third of the novel to be a struggle as it becomes repetitive both in the ongoing investigation into Sofia Kovalevskaya’s life and Rakel’s ruminations. Rakel also comes to love another man named David, who works with mechanical puzzles (like Rubik’s cubes), and when she realises that she’s fallen for him (note: David is also married), she lets him go. Thus, demonstrating that she will not make the same mistake twice. However, I personally did not think it was necessary to include David’s character.

When Jakob reveals he won’t leave his wife, it would have been sufficient to then lead into Rakel’s process to move on and how she goes about it. The insertion of David into the story just felt like dragging out an already pretty depressing story.

The ‘hope’ at the end, comes in the form of Rakel writing her own novel. A process of catharsis. She talks about the structure of her book being in two parts – gold and granite – and repeating it over and over so there are multiple parts all made up of gold and granite. She concludes that even though there might be more granite, overall there will be a gold sheen because the gold will stand out more.

I don’t know about that. The granite seems to definitely come to the forefront and weigh heavy in Lean Your Loneliness Slowly Against Mine. Rakel’s luminous moments are sucked in by the black hole that forms by her longing and subsequent break-up with Jakob. She uses the black hole metaphor throughout the story.

And though there are theories that suggest that certain things can escape a black hole, and we are given the impression that Rakel is able to escape hers by story’s end, it does not feel like she will ever be whole again.

In the end, a quote from the story sums it up: The irrational always wins over the rational in this world. And thus is love captured in many a story because of this.

2 out of 5.