For better or worse, most fantasy is fairly British in nature. (Blame it on Tolkien.) What initially interested me in The Justice of Kings was that its fantasy seemed more Germanic in nature, if only in the names of people and places. But what’s most noteworthy about the novel is that, although it has some of the usual fantasy trappings (e.g., magic), it’s actually a detective story crossed with a healthy dose of legal drama. (Author Richard Swan is a lawyer in real life, which adds to the verisimilitude.) It’s well-written and engaging, particularly since it’s narrated by a young woman who serves as a scribe for an imperial agent tasked with investigating rumored cult activities, which eventually reveal a far bigger conspiracy that threatens the whole empire. The Justice of Kings is the first in a trilogy — does anyone publish one-off genre novels any more? — and though I enjoyed it, I’m not sure I enjoyed it enough to make me rush out and read the remaining books.
Given that it stars a veritable “Who’s Who” of modern action stars — e.g., Tony Jaa, Tiger Chen, Iko Uwais, Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White — it should go without saying that Jesse V. Johnson’s Triple Threat boasts some pretty impressive fights. I pressed “Rewind” on several occasions so that I could watch certain bad-ass moves again, particularly from Chen and Adkins, and I winced more than once at scenes of particularly brutal carnage. As an added bonus, Triple Threat possesses a certain gritty, DIY feel that adds to its intensity. I just wish the storyline had been a wee bit stronger. It’s promising at points, with a pair of mercenaries on the run from some other mercenaries while protecting a Chinese heiress, but got muddled whenever it tried to inject some humor or backstory into the proceedings.
I daresay that the vast majority of those who read The Mysteries, myself included, will do so because it was written by Bill Watterson, of Calvin and Hobbes fame. Indeed, if it were written by anyone else, this slight fantasy fable would probably fly under the radar. That’s not to say that it’s bad, just that it’s a very far cry from Calvin and Hobbes… sort of. If one were inclined, one could draw some parallels with those strips where Calvin and/or Hobbes critiqued modern society’s dismissal of wonder and imagination — themes that are very present in The Mysteries’ seventy pages or so. As for the artwork, which Watterson created in collaboration with caricaturist John Kascht, it’s an interesting and darkly beautiful blend of paintings, models, collage work, and whatnot that has a very tangible and physical quality to it.
On the one hand, Reservation Dogs’ third and final season felt more directionless and less cohesive than its first two, with episodes meandering around the reservation and focusing on a wider array of characters, both in the present and the past. Which sometimes made for a frustrating experience, particularly when compared to the previous seasons’ more defined arcs. On the other hand, I just love spending time with every single one of these characters: the titular foursome, their aunties, uncles, and grandparents, and even the various spirits who interact with them all and offer (occasionally) helpful advice. Furthermore, Reservation Dogs’ focus on the necessity of maintaining and respecting one’s community, exploration of life’s cyclical nature, and depiction of the “thinness” between the physical and spiritual worlds have given me much to think — and laugh — about. A truly special and unique series.
On paper, watching a nameless hitman methodically clean up all of the loose ends after a hit goes sideways sounds like a pretty boring way to spend two hours. And it is… until it’s not. Those expecting the sort of stylized wall-to-wall action that’s usually associated with “hitman” movies will likely be disappointed here. But kudos to director David Fincher and star Michael Fassbender for creating a film that becomes increasingly engrossing as the titular assassin goes about his bloody business with cool detachment, determination, and inspirational aphorisms like “Anticipate, don’t improvise” and “Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight.” (All delivered via internal monologue, natch.) At times, it almost feels like a heist film as you try and figure out how he’s going to overcome each new dilemma. It doesn’t hurt that The Killer has some occasional flashes of dark humor, such as the hitman’s reliance on Amazon and the gig economy to do his job. A lesser director might try and beat audiences over the head with that as social commentary — as in: modern society requires us to live like an amoral, yoga-practicing, Smiths-loving hitman in order to survive — but thankfully, Fincher avoids that pitfall.
Shamelessly aping (npi) Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now for a monster movie might be a little on the nose, but in the case of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, it turns to be a pretty decent idea. And when you throw in some impressive-looking visuals, lots of intense (read: gory) monster brawls, and best of all, some delightful John C. Reilly kookiness, then you have a movie that’s way more than the sum of its parts. In other words, Kong: Skull Island possesses a sense of fun and zaniness — be it Reilly’s unhinged performance, Samuel L. Jackson’s scenery-chewing, or the elaborate monster designs — that’s sorely lacking from the rest of Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse titles.
It threw me for a loop back in 2015 when Hou Hsiao-hsien, who is now retired, announced that he was making a wuxia film, and I doubt I was alone in that. But this is Hou Hsiao-hsien we’re talking about, so The Assassin isn’t exactly Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, or House of Flying Daggers — for better or worse. Like those films, The Assassin is absolutely gorgeous, from the rich costumes and production design to the unbelievable Chinese landscapes and scenery. But the storyline — a skilled assassin must prove her loyalty by killing the man to whom she’d one been betrothed — is more of a mixed bag. Hou is extremely fond of “pillow moments” (to use Roger Ebert’s term) and pregnant silences. Which means that The Assassin’s story is often as obtuse as it is engaging, if not more so. Sometimes this stylistic choice works and draws you into the film and the characters’ inner lives and sometimes, it’s just frustrating, particularly when political conspiracies emerge and immediately feel anticlimactic.
The only reason this film works as well as it does is because of Denzel Washington. He brings the requisite amounts of gravitas and screen presence to make you believe in his haunted ex-super-deadly-guy who now seeks redemption by taking out a bunch of Russian gangsters in violent, blood-soaked fashion. Of course, being an Antoine Fuqua film, The Equalizer occasionally dips into hyper-stylized, CGI-enhanced silliness — which is a shame, because I much preferred the slow, seemingly mundane burn of the film’s first act — but even then, it remains eminently watchable because of Denzel. No one else could’ve pulled it off, of that I’m convinced.
Author Sourya may be French-Laotian, but Talli, Daughter of the Moon is heavily influenced by Japanese manga, from the character designs to the tonal shifts. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, not in this case. The fantasy tale of a young noblewoman on the run and trying to better understand her mysterious powers — powers that could spell ruin for the entire kingdom — hits plenty of tropes, but Sourya’s storytelling and artwork keeps things fresh and inviting.
Inspired by classic Breton folk tales, The Daughters of Ys spins a dark tale about two sisters driven apart by grief over their mother’s death — one heads off into the wilderness while the other becomes embroiled in court politics — and the roles they play in the fate of the doomed city of Ys. I’m a sucker for well-done riffs on classic stories; while The Daughters of Ys is nothing revelatory, it’s still a very enjoyable read for fans of somber fairy tales. M. T. Anderson’s prose has a Gaiman-esque quality (not a bad thing!) while Jo Rioux’s painterly images evoke elements of Celtic artwork.
I played this on a whim and was pleasantly surprised. Some obvious comparisons can be made to the Portal games, but Superliminal’s entire vibe is much more surreal, from the puzzles themselves to the graphics, controls, and especially Matt Christensen’s muzak soundtrack. Which makes sense given the game’s objective is to try and find your way through a dream therapy program that’s run amok. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to ask my teenager for help a couple of times. (The moon puzzle really threw me.) That said, the game’s conclusion was a bit anticlimactic. There’s a moment where it seemed like Superliminal is going to veer off into darker, Twin Peaks-esque territory, only to pull back. In hindsight, I wish, perhaps, that the game had continued down that path. Regardless, Superliminal is still a nice way to spend a few hours, though don’t be surprised if the game’s illusions and use of forced perspective give you a little vertigo every now and then.
If you haven’t read any of Brandon Sanderson’s other novels set in his extensive (some might say, convoluted) Cosmere mythology, have no fear. Sure, it’s narrated by Hoid and references cognitive shadows, cryptics, lightweaving, and whatnot, but Yumi and the Nightmare Painter’s story about a man and woman from different worlds who suddenly find themselves inhabiting each other’s bodies is largely self-contained. It’s also a bit on the slight side, which makes sense given its origins as a secret project for Sanderson’s 2022 Kickstarter campaign. The novel worked best for me when I remembered that it’s basically Sanderson riffing on a Final Fantasy game; the storyline, characters, magic, technology, etc., all feel very much like something out of a JRPG. If JRPGs aren’t your thing, though, then you might have a harder time with it.
In my review of Foundation’s first season, I wrote that it tried to fit way too much into just ten episodes. That’s still my biggest complaint with the second season. To be sure, Foundation remains eminently watchable — Apple has clearly spared no expense — and I’m frequently in awe of its world building, from the various space ships and fantastical technology (e.g., Hari Seldon’s vault) to the religious movements and shifting political allegiances. But I still felt like I’d somehow missed one vital episode that tied all of various narrative strands together. Which is a shame, because there were some individual stories that I really enjoyed, like the various revelations about Demerzel as well as the push and pull between Bel Riose and his husband Glawen Curr. (Glawen, by the way, is one of my favorite characters from 2023.) But even with my aforementioned criticism, I’ll still tune in for season three; getting to watch space opera this ambitious on the small screen is a real treat.
At the risk of sounding like a lazy critic, is Asteroid City the most Wes Anderson-y thing that Wes Anderson has ever done? With its story within a story within a story structure, heavily affected performances, carefully controlled camerawork, and production design that pushes Anderson’s trademark style to the nth degree, I think all signs point to “Yes.” As with most Anderson movies, there’s a bit more going on beneath the surface; for starters, Asteroid City tries to raise questions about the extent to which fictional narratives can capture the elusive nature of truth. But it does so in such a stilted and affected manner that I question its efficacy. That said, I love the film’s production design and cinematography, which makes you feel like you’ve been dropped down inside a sun-bleached vintage postcard from the 1950s. And I’d probably watch an entire film about Montana and his cowboy band.
Elf is one of those movies that feels impossible to review because of its position in our shared cultural consciousness concerning the Christmas season. We all know the story of Buddy the Elf, and his epic journey through the candy cane forest, the sea of swirly twirly gum drops, and the Lincoln Tunnel. Few actors have ever been so perfectly cast as Will Ferrell, though some of his antics are a bit less endearing now, twenty(!) years after the fact. But the movie’s true star is the North Pole’s immaculate production design, which perfectly captures the look and feel of those classic Rankin/Bass specials of my childhood. Here’s a fun bit of trivia: Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World) was originally offered the directing gig, but opted for Bad Santa instead. One can only imagine the alternate reality of a Zwigoff-directed Elf.
I didn’t realize until I had finished reading The Sky Vault that it’s actually part of a series. But Benjamin Percy’s novel is remarkably self-contained. Thus, I never felt like I was missing any important details or context while reading its story about a random assortment of people in Fairbanks, Alaska who get caught up in a secret government program stretching back to World War II, one involving bizarre weather phenomena and an otherworldly threat. Conversely, I don’t feel all that compelled to check out the preceding novels in Percy’s series or to eagerly await future installments. The Sky Vault contains interesting threads, including a conspiracy theorist whose theories finally become true, a former government agent-turned-mercenary in search of one final score, and an aging lawman caught up in events far beyond his ken. But the resulting novel is over-stuffed, and as a result, its core revelations about the aforementioned otherworldly threat are a bit undercooked. For what it’s worth, I was occasionally reminded of Peter Clines’ The Fold and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland.
I feel a little weird trying to review Hayao Miyazaki’s latest because I think it’ll take another viewing or three to unpack it all. But I’ll say this: those expecting the whimsical fantasies of Ponyo or My Neighbor Totoro will be in for a shock. At first blush, The Boy and the Heron feels like Miyazaki’s most solemn film since 1997’s Princess Mononoke, one that’s almost nightmarish at times. Even though there are fantastical elements, like an army of giant parakeets and a hall of doorways that lead to other worlds, there’s something angry and unsettling beneath it all, starting with the protagonist: a sullen 12-year-old boy who grieves his mother’s death, resents his father’s new wife (who happens to his aunt), and is prone to self-inflicted injury. (And as for that army of parakeets, they eat people.) The story draws heavily from Miyazaki’s own childhood, so none of it feels random or haphazard, and the film’s climax is a very clear message from the director. Of course, being a Studio Ghibli film, The Boy and the Heron’s artwork and animation are absolutely gorgeous and immaculately detailed, outclassing everyone else with ease.
I must’ve seen Batman Begins at least three times when it was in the theater. As a comic book nerd, I was so thrilled to see a comic book movie that took Batman seriously, especially after the Joel Schumacher trainwrecks in the late ’90s. Drawing inspiration from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, Batman Begins chronicles Bruce Wayne’s initial efforts as the Caped Crusader after traveling the world to understand the criminal mind; as such, it’s suitably dark and stylish. Watching it now, nearly twenty years after its release, some parts definitely hold up better than others, though. Not surprisingly, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman are excellent in their roles, and I loved the believable manner in which Bruce acquires his fantastical Batgear. Unfortunately, Nolan edits the life out of his action scenes and at times, the film’s darker tone takes on a self-important air. Also, for all of the film’s realistic approaches to Batman’s skills, training, equipment, etc., we never do see how Bruce and Alfred deal with the massive amounts of toxic guano that would certainly fill the Batcave.
I hope I can critique Loki’s second season without sounding like one of those YouTube bros who post video screeds whining about how Captain Marvel is too woke, so here goes… There’s a lot to like about Loki: Tom Hiddleston’s performance, the TVA’s immaculate production design, the visual effects, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s direction. (The less said about Jonathan Majors’ performance, however, the better. He was underwhelming as He Who Remains and even more so as Victor Timely.) But given the MCU’s currently aimless state, it feels rather pointless and disconnected. Admittedly, earlier Marvel series like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Daredevil were only tangentially connected to the MCU, but they didn’t focus on a character as prominent, or beloved, as Loki. Nor did they end with an event that’s arguably more significant than Thanos’ snap. But much like that Celestial corpse Eternals left floating in the ocean, it doesn’t seem like it’ll matter all that much, which robs Loki’s final triumph/sacrifice of some emotional and thematic heft.
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.