Inspired by a Tibetan folktale, Shuna’s Journey has many of the usual Hayao Miyazaki tropes (e.g., fantastical settings, a strong female protagonist) and touches on some of his pet themes, including both humanity’s relationship with nature and its proclivity for violence and exploitation. At the same time, it has a fairy tale-esque tone, particularly as the titular hero enters the strange lands of the god-folk — but as is Miyazaki’s wont, it’s tinged with darkness and mystery. Originally published in 1983, it might be tempting to dismiss Shuna’s Journey as a precursor to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke — as if you’d ever really want to dismiss anything by Miyazaki, that is. But even with all of its familiarity, I was caught up within just a few pages thanks to Miyazaki’s gorgeous watercolors, poetic storytelling, and ability to pack so much life and energy into his illustrations. First Second Books’ edition contains a brief afterword by Miyazaki as well as some notes by translater Alex Dudok de Wit that offer some helpful insights into the story’s creation and themes.
It may have won the Hugo Award for best novella, but I was surprisingly underwhelmed by All Systems Red. The concept is very promising: a security robot hacks its programming and becomes self-aware, which poses some thorny questions given its incredibly deadly — and, ahem, murderous — nature. But the actual storyline felt rather pedestrian, as the titular Murderbot struggles to help his latest clients, a group of researchers whose expedition on a distant and hostile planet has been compromised. There are hints at a broader storyline, but I don’t feel a deep need to check out the rest of Murderbot’s diaries.
Is Star Trek: Lower Decks finally growing up? While this latest season still contained (juvenile) jokes and references aplenty, there was some distinct maturation as our lowly ensigns finally got promoted, sometimes against their will. Lower Decks has always had an outsider’s connection to the larger Star Trek universe. Sure, Riker and Q might pop up here and there, but the series’ events often felt disconnected from the rest of the canon. But this season contained some developments — e.g., the Ferengi applying for Federation membership, Nova Fleet — that ought to have some broader ramifications for the franchise. Also, Tendi and Rutherford are my favorite on-screen couple of any series right now, so I loved seeing Lower Decks finally address their relationship in a way that seemed set-up for one direction, only to go in a different direction that was subversive in its delightful wholesomeness.
Whenever we venture up to Omaha, it’s basically assumed that, time permitting, we’re going to eat at Tasty Pizza. Though it’s no longer located in that charming little house on Leavenworth, the pizza’s still just as good, er, tasty. There’s nothing all that flashy or eclectic about Tasty Pizza’s menu. Rather, they just focus on the essentials. As a result, though, I’ve never had a bad slice in all of the times I’ve gone there.
While I enjoyed Westmark, I struggled with The Kestrel. At less than 250 pages, The Kestrel is not a long book, but Lloyd Alexander aims for an epic scope as the nation of Westmark faces betrayal and invasion by the neighboring nation of Regia. The book’s characters are all caught up in the conflict, particularly protagonist Theo, who joins up with the anti-monarchy freedom fighter Florian and slowly begins to lose his humanity amidst the horrors and brutality of war. The Kestrel felt rather fragmented at times, as Alexander hops all over the place in order to keep track of the growing conflict. That, and I never quite got a handle on the book’s tone; it switches from grim battles and moments of anguish to scenes with a pair of child thieves that, while not exactly light-hearted, still felt like they were from another novel entirely.
This is an interesting curiosity piece from 1988 that was brought to my attention by Instagram’s algorithm. Directed by Makoto Kobayashi — who wrote the original manga and helped create the mechanical designs — Dragon’s Heaven begins with a 5-minute prelude filled with live-action miniatures à la Masato Harada’s Gunhed and a sweeping orchestral score by Yasunori Iwasaki. It then transitions to the animated story, which is set in a post-apocalyptic future several thousand years from now. There, a young woman and an ancient robot must join forces to defend a desert city from invading forces led by the robot’s arch-nemesis. Story-wise, Dragon’s Heaven is pretty silly and threadbare, but it’s worth watching for the unique mecha designs and visual style, which eschews typical anime aesthetics for something more reminiscent of, say, Moebius. Following Dragon’s Heaven, Kobayashi would go on to work on numerous anime titles including Last Exile, Samurai 7, and Steamboy.
In keeping with the spirit of the spooky season, we watched this for a family movie night. It’s probably been 20+ years since I last watched The Sixth Sense, but it still held up quite well despite knowing the twist and all of the ways in which said twist is foreshadowed. (Indeed, a lot of the fun of watching the movie this time around was seeing my kids as the truth dawned on them. It was also fun exploring the film’s various clues in hindsight.) Much of that’s due to Haley Joel Osment’s central performance, which is just remarkable at times in both its honesty and emotion; the film simply would not work without it. Meanwhile, Bruce Willis turns in a wonderfully subdued performance. The Sixth Sense certainly lays on the melodrama and earnestness more thickly than the scares — which are still plenty effective — but thanks to the aforementioned performances, M. Night Shyamalan’s assured direction, and some excellent production design, it more than earns its emotional payoff.
Charlie Fitzer is a down-on-his-luck substitute teacher barely living from paycheck to paycheck. When his ultra-rich uncle dies, it seems like things might finally be turning around for Charlie — except that in addition to being ridiculously wealthy, Charlie’s uncle was also one of the world’s greatest super-villains. And now Charlie has been tapped to be his heir, which means dealing with the world’s other super-villains. But at least Charlie now has his very own island volcano lair. Starter Villain is precisely what I’ve come to expect from John Scalzi: an engaging and entertaining read that’s the literary equivalent of a bacon double cheeseburger with a side of fries and a chocolate milkshake. (Which is a good thing.) It’s frequently funny — the potty-mouthed talking dolphins trying to unionize had me chuckling, as did a scene of super-villains trying to meet over Zoom — and as an added bonus, Scalzi makes some pointed digs at tech bros and ultra-rich elites alike. (Which feel particularly relevant in light of, say, Elon Musk’s “inspired” leadership that’s current driving Twitter down into a death spiral.)
After a man discovers that his iMac and the TV in his café are caught in a time loop, and thus display events from two minutes in the future and the past (respectively), his friends quickly figure out how to use that to their advantage. But as their temporal shenanigans grow increasingly convoluted, they risk running afoul of some local yakuza and possibly destabilizing the entire space-time continuum. I’m not sure how coherent its temporal logic is when compared to, say, Primer, but it’s hard not to admire Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes for its scrappy, low-budget spirit (the film was shot using smartphones and Tamagotchi-sized cameras) and intricate construction, as seen during the end credits. Clocking in at 70 minutes and presented as a single take, Junta Yamaguchi’s film doesn’t wear out its welcome. Indeed, you’ll probably spend much longer afterwards trying to figure out how Yamaguchi and his collaborators put it all together, and in just a week, no less.
A year after their close friend’s death, four Indigenous teens plot to escape their small Oklahoma town and start over in California. That, however, proves to be easier said than done, as their various schemes never quite go the way they’d like and they find themselves in conflict with a rival gang. That, and they discover their bonds to their families and community are perhaps stronger than they’d like. Reservation Dogs is notable for being the first TV series to be written and directed entirely by Indigenous individuals, which gives it a truly unique perspective. It’s filled with memorable characters (e.g., the spirit of a warrior who died at The Battle of Little Big Horn and now doles out cryptic advice to the series’ characters, some rapping twins who roll around town on their bikes) as well as an understated sense of humor that occasionally verges on the absurd.
It’s probably been fifteen years since I last watched Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s hilarious ode to zombie films — and romantic comedies. (Read my original review from 2004.) Wright’s “RomZomCom” stars Pegg as the titular Shaun, a hapless slacker who isn’t going anywhere in life or love. Until, that is, the zombie apocalypse forces him to step up and become a hero. Time has been quite kind to Shaun of the Dead. Although it’s filled with the sort of frenetic editing that typified ’00s cinema, Shaun of the Dead has enough wit and cleverness for a dozen films, horror or otherwise. What’s more, Pegg and co-star Nick Frost — who plays Shaun’s even slackier best friend Ed — have the sort of easy onscreen chemistry that’s only found in the very best comedic duos. (I was fortunate enough to see this on the big screen via The Ross Theater’s first annual Fright Fest.)
Here’s the thing about Netflix’s Lupin: You have to suspend your disbelief. And I mean, really suspend it in order to overlook all of the hand-waving and glossing over the complexities of the protagonist’s various heists and schemes. And for the most part, you won’t really mind doing so because the series is so darn charming thanks to Omar Sy’s lead performance. Unfortunaely, the disbelief is harder to suspend during this third season, which finds debonair thief Assane Diop (Sy) racing to save his family from an old enemy. The season gets increasingly convoluted, including an awkward storyline in which a disguised Diop charms his ex-wife. The threat from Diop’s past never actually feels all that threatening, the constant flashbacks are a bit much, and the season never quite earns the emotional pay-off that it’s so clearly trying to achieve. There are some interesting twists and wrinkles, though, as Diop tests his allies’ loyalty and forges some unlikely alliances. Not surprisingly, season three ends on a cliffhanger that totally sets up Lupin’s fourth (and hopefully final) season.
Ahoska’s first season was far better than The Book of Boba Fett and The Mandalorian’s superfluous third season, and maybe even Obi-Wan Kenobi. Some note that it’s “basically” season five of Star Wars Rebels, with Ahsoka, Sabine Wren, et al. trying to find Ezra Bridger and prevent Thrawn’s return. (I’ve only seen bits and pieces of Rebels, but I never felt lost watching Ahsoka.) I really dug the extra-galactic travel and the more fantasy-like elements (e.g., the Dathomirian witches and their magick), as well as the samurai angle. The Star Wars franchise owes a huge debt to samurai movies but Ahsoka really plays up that influence, from her garb and the costumes of the Peridea bandits to the music and the lightsaber stances. Finally, I’d be sorely remiss if I didn’t mention Ray Stevenson’s Baylan Skoll. What could’ve been a token villain turned out to be something far more nuanced and interesting thanks to Stevenson’s understated performance. When Skoll talks about missing the idea of the Jedi Order, I felt it in my bones. Sadly, Stevenson died earlier this year, so we’ll never get to see where he would’ve taken his character in subsequent seasons.
Lloyd Alexander is best known for his Welsh-inspired high fantasy series, The Chronicles of Prydain (which I finally read last year and enjoyed). However, he wrote others novels set in historically influenced settings, including ancient India (The Iron Ring), ancient China (The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen), and in the case of Westmark, the French Revolution. Its setting aside, Westmark includes themes that are common to Alexander’s stories, i.e., the protagonist is an idealistic young man who discovers that the world is a lot more complicated than he thought, and with the help of a cast of colorful characters, must fight evil while grappling with moral and ethical quandaries. This is far from weighty, preachy stuff, though. I read Westmark in just a few hours thanks to Alexander’s economical (though no less imaginative) writing and worldbuilding.
My son calls Mad Max: Fury Road the craziest, weirdest movie he’s ever seen. Granted, he’s only 15, but he’s not necessarily wrong. Mad Max: Fury Road is completely over-the-top in almost every way possible, from the extremely dystopian setting to the outrageous characters to the jaw-dropping and immaculately choreographed action sequences. (Once again, I have to ask: How did nobody die during the making of this movie?) Also, I can’t get over how beautiful it all looks. The deeply saturated desert setting (most of the film was shot in Namibia’s Dorob National Park) is virtually a character itself, but even the countless explosions and car crashes are next-level eye candy that director George Miller injects directly into your brain’s visual cortex. That said, the film’s real trick is that, all mind-blowing visuals aside, its story still hits hard on a primal level, be it Max’s slow return to humanity, Furiosa’s determination, or Nux’s redemption. All in all, just a modern marvel of a film.
I checked out Malcolm Kid and the Perfect Song from the library on a whim, and I’m glad I did. Austin Paramore’s debut graphic novel is the charming story of Malcolm Kid, an aspiring young musician who suddenly finds himself in possession of a keyboard that’s haunted by the spirit of an old jazz pianist. The only way to set the spirit free is to find and play… wait for it… the perfect song. However, that will require Malcolm to reconnect with an old friend, explore his town’s history, stand up to his demanding father, and confront some family tragedies. Oh, and deal with a Mephistopheles-like character who takes a great interest in Malcolm’s burgeoning talent. Paramore packs a lot into his story and does a fine job of balancing it all. Meanwhile, Sarah Bollinger’s delightful artwork keeps things light with some manga-like flourishes, but never at the expense of the story’s drama and emotion.
If you were to ask me why I started watching this Netflix anime about a young woman who suddenly finds herself betrothed to a seemingly ruthless man she’s never met, I’m not sure I could give you an answer. (The algorithm works in mysterious ways, I guess.) Given the premise, there’s loads of melodrama as our young heroine — who arguably possesses one of the breathiest and most forlorn voices in all of anime — moves from an abusive household to one that holds the promise of something more. Naturally, romantic triangles and dramatic misunderstandings ensue. The series’ exploration of abuse and trauma adds an interesting wrinkle as does the incorporation of supernatural elements and alternate Japanese history. In the end, however, My Happy Marriage can’t quite integrate all of these elements; it can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. A second season was recently greenlit, which I might check out to see if the storytelling gets any stronger.
There’s no point in denying Akira’s status as an iconic and seminal work of both animation and sci-fi. Even now, 35 years after its release, there are segments that far surpass anything that’s been filmed or animated since, especially when it comes to sheer apocalyptic spectacle. The term “mind-blowing” gets tossed around so casually these days, but the last 30 minutes or so, as Tetsuo’s powers run amok and everyone resorts to increasingly desperate measures to stop him, are exactly that. (And I shouldn’t have to say this, but attempting to capture any of that in live action would be a fool’s errand.) That said, my response to the film was a bit cooler this time around than in the past, and I think that’s because I’ve finally read Katsuhiro Otomo’s original manga. Not to take anything away from Otomo’s adaptation of his own work, but the manga’s storyline is so much deeper and richer. The anime hits all of the important notes, and of course, is a visual triumph, but there’s so much more in the manga.
Considerably more sedate and somber than its predecessor, Patlabor 2: The Movie has everything you could possibly want from a Mamoru Oshii film. It’s got a heady, convoluted plot involving political and military conspiracies, glacial pacing punctuated by intense action, philosophical discussions about the nature of war and peace, highly detailed military activity, contemplative scenes enhanced by Production I.G’s gorgeous cel animation and Kenji Kawai’s moody ambient score, and there’s even a basset hound for good measure. 1995’s Ghost in the Shell is usually lauded as Oshii’s signature work, and understandably so. But you could make a strong argument for Patlabor 2: The Movie being a very close second. In fact, I’d daresay that Patlabor 2: The Movie, which was released in 1993, laid the foundation for Ghost in the Shell’s contemplative cyberpunk.
Based on the Patlabor TV series, which itself was based on the long-running Mobile Police Patlabor manga, Patlabor: The Movie suffers from a rather slight storyline involving a hacker’s plan to infect all of Tokyo’s Labors (i.e., giant mecha used by construction, police, and the military) with a virus. But honestly, I wasn’t watching Patlabor: The Movie for the storyline. I was watching it for the directing (because I tend to like Mamoru Oshii’s aesthetic), the hand-drawn cel animation (which was refreshing after watching so much modern CG-enhanced animation), and the mechanical designs (because giant mechs are always cool). Consider a short scene from the film’s opening, in which a military Labor is aerially deployed and a tiny drag chute is used to pull it out of the aircraft. The attention to detail in just that short sequence alone (e.g., the uncoiling of the chute’s rope, the sense of mass in the mech’s movement) was rewarding enough to justify watching the entire movie.