Category: Reviews

I Rewatched Avatar: The Last Airbender

I loved the Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoons when they came out [Note: I haven’t seen the film and I have only seen bits of the Legend of Korra] and I was really impressed. Kids TV or TV orientated to kids has repeatedly thrown up amazing gems — clever, inventive and engaging stories that have an element of creative freedom that adult shows are prevented from having. However, I saw it in a fragmented way. I missed episodes or was doing grown-up stuff.

Talking about it with now grown-up people who watched it as kids, I realised how much of it I’d never seen. I felt I knew the story but in truth there where massive chunks missing and parts (including the end!) that I’d just extrapolated or picked up from conversations. So I decided to watch the whole thing from beginning to end in a binge.

Some practicalities got in the way. In Australia, Season 1 is available on the Amazon Prime streaming service and Season 3 is available on the Stan streaming service and Season 2…isn’t. You can but all three seasons from iTunes and there are sites that carry not-always-great uploads of the show. Through a mix of options, I did get to watch all three seasons.

Some observations:

  • Yes, it was as good as I remember.
  • Some of the novelty (e.g. using a mix of western style animation & anime conventions) feels less radical now.
  • The use of China & Japan as a template for worldbuilding a fantasy land STILL looks novel for a Western produced fantasy story (although there are many more examples now).
  • Some of that borrowing from East Asian cultures now looks clumsy, in some cases appropriative and in others falls into bad stereotypes.
  • Actually, no, it wasn’t as good as I remember — it was better.

Its core strengths as a fantasy series were multifold. Most importantly it managed to have a set of core characters with clear and distinct personalities that stayed consistent  BUT which allowed for personal growth. Ang is both the same and different by the final episode, so is Katara and Sokka and of course Prince Zuko. All four of them appear in Episode 1 Season 1 and all four appear in the final episode, substantially transformed but still clearly the same people. This same process was done less successfully with supporting characters (Uncle Iroh’s motives & motivation get elevated, Azula gets a last-minute mental breakdown) but overall the story follows character-growth. In season 1 this was often done using children’s TV conventions — episodes would alternate between ones that pushed the over-arching plot forwards and ones that involved some lesson for the core characters in terms of who they are and their relationships.

Much is made of magic systems in modern fantasy and here the show was a really nice example of how to do it. The ‘bending’ is easy to grasp as a concept, it’s well integrated into the story (including into the surrounding technology) but the story never gets to belaboured into the mechanics of it. Pretty much you are told all you need to know in the first few seconds of the opening credits. After that, the show brings in examples bit by bit. Yes, there are points where a viewer might wonder ‘but why don’t they just…’* and the story skips over that but on the whole the story follows the implications through. For example the great Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se has trains – powered by Earth benders pushing them along.

That sense of technological progress (both good and bad) also prevents the setting feeling like the kind of permanent Middle-Ages of standard Western fantasy. The peoples in the world are inventive and adaptable, they live different lives than they did in the past but are also connected to that past. Without delving too much into a complex history, the setting feels like a dynamic place with a past and a future.

The Last Airbender wasn’t shy about its influences (anime, martial arts movies, epic fantasy, quest stories etc) and its fun to watch for those elements. What caught me a few times was seeing things that looked like influences…but weren’t. The great walls around Ba Sing Se look like a nod to Attack on Titan, except The Last Airbender finished in 2008 and the Attack on Titan manga didn’t start until 2009. Star Wars connections also feel two-way, Zuko is destined to bring balance to the elements but Zuko feels a lot Kylo-Ren (not least of which is a fractured relationship with Mark Hamill!) or a scene in Season 2 Episode 13 (The Drill) in which Earth Kingdon troops in tenches in front of a wall face an approaching mechanised Fire Nation force, that looks not unlike a scene from The Last Jedi.

N.K. Jemisin (whose Broken Earth trilogy has its own connections with The Last Airbender) said about the series that it:

“…was, in my opinion, the best original fantasy produced by an American company since Jim Henson’s death. It was a children’s cartoon that was Shakespearean in its themes and weight, yet it managed to remain fundamentally young at heart.” http://nkjemisin.com/2010/06/its-not-the-same-story/

I think that is a good assessment. Yes, it was often ‘just’ a kids cartoon show and it has myriad flaws and silly episodes but it also had that element that the really great fantasy stories have: it makes people want to write their own. I think it already has influenced the fantasy genre but I think about kids who watched it for whom it was their Lord of the Rings or Wizard of Earthsea or Weirdstone of Brisingamen (feel free to add your own!) that set a spark in their imagination and presented a flexible template for a great story.

*[Katara learns ‘blood bending’ from an old Water Bender. The technique allow her to control a person’s body and she rejects using it because of its terrible nature. She does use it on two occasions. Later Katara sympathises with Ang not wishing to kill the tyrannical Fire Lord but also sees that Ang has to act – that she has the power to completely immobilise the Fire Lord doesn’t come up.]

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Review: Final Space (Netflix)

I’ll say up front that this is not a positive review. I’m mainly going to be writing negative things. Having said that, I watched all the episodes without being under duress and I genuinely wanted to know what happened next. It was like a decent cake with terrible icing on top — you really can’t ignore how terrible the icing is and are mystified that the baker thought that was the best bit.

Final Space is a 12 episode ‘adult’ cartoon series available on Netflix. It follows the adventures of amiable loser Gary Goodspeed who adopts a weird alien creature called Mooncake, who is also a plot McGuffin being sought by the evil Lord Commander (voiced by David Tennant).

The series was created by Olan Rogers, an “independent internet filmmaker” (according to Wikipedia) who also voices the main character, Gary. Gary is as annoying as hell. Olan Rogers also voices the character Tribore. Tribore is also as annoying as hell. Neither character is funny — I mean not funny to me, apparently, Olan Rogers finds them hilarious. Everything is just dialled up to high with these characters so that it feels like every line is meant to be rib-achingly funny. Maybe it’s just me but they aren’t.

In Episode 1, Gary has been sentenced to a kind of community-service/imprisonment on a space-ship that is otherwise only populated by a ship’s AI, a horde of identical androids and a floating ball like robot called Kevin. A running joke is that Kevin is meant to be so, so annoying that Gary (who is terminally lonely in space) hates him despite/because he is the only company. Kevin is much, much less annoying than Gary.

Gary has been cut from a rough Phillip J Fry Futurama pattern, but without the naive charm and with what appears to a huge chunk of Zapp Branigan DNA. In the early episodes, a running joke is Gary sending regular messages to Quinn, a member of an elite space force who he tried to chat up in a bar once (setting off a chain of events leading to his arrest). Which, yes, just seems creepy stalkerish rather than funny/pathetic. Yes, eventually Quinn does fall in love with him. Yes, this is terrible on multiple levels, from just plain bad, cliched plotting to a disturbing model of relationships.

BUT, aside from the main character being an unfunny, over-acted, creep who is meant to be funny but singularly fails to be and a plotline where he gets the girl despite all that because apparently, the way to true romance is to just pester people you like, the show is actually OK. Remove the central character and it’s not bad.

It’s basically a fun kids cartoon but with more violence and (generally mild) sexual references. With a small amount of effort, it could have been a really good kid’s cartoon instead of whatever it ended up being. There’s a decent story underneath and some interesting twists. Secondary character Avocato — a space mercenary with a complex past and a missing son — is interesting. Quinn is interesting (except when terrible plotting of relationships takes hold) and the evil antagonist Lord Commander is suitably evil.

I wouldn’t want to recommend you watch it as for some readers it might result in them using their mobile device as a projectile aimed at the wall but it is sort of a better show than it deserves to be.

Review: Wellington Paranormal

Remember the cops that visitor the shared vampire house in Taika Waititi’s What We Do In The Shadows? They are back in a TV series with Taika Waititi and Jamie Clements as executive producers. Episodes have been screening for a couple of weeks in New Zealand and the show started broadcasting in Australia on tuesday.

Episode one, at least, delivered everything I expected. The theme music and episode structure are overtly a parody of the X-Files and while that may seem less than topical, it fits with show’s self-deprecating tone.

Sergeant Maka (Maka Pohatu) of the Wellington Police Force has been keeping a close eye on the ‘not normal’ (‘but is it paranormal, sarge?’) cases. For episode 1, the ‘not normal’ is a cow on top of a tree and dispatches his two most trusted officers O’Leary and Minogue (played by Karen O’Leary and Mike Minogue) to investigate. The case takes them out of the city and into the countryside. Unsettling encounters with a farmer leads to a discovery of crop circles and strange seed pods. As matters escalate, there are parts that are genuinely alarming.

At least one Australian watching with me complained that they couldn’t always follow the dialogue but apparently, my superior English ears had no problem with cross-Tasman accents. However, Americans may wish to make use of subtitles in place when the vowels become too short for them.

Dry, whimsical and weird. Very amusing.

Review: The Black Tides of Heaven (Novella) J.Y.Yang

My Hugo reading has been somewhat disrupted by a brief overseas trip and a short shift of location. JY Yang’s novella unfortunately got particularly disrupted by that. I had started reading it, got distracted (it didn’t really grab me initially) and I returned to it a couple of weeks later feeling guilty.

The novella had got a lot better in the intervening time, a stories somehow manage to do even though they are just sitting there waiting for their reader to pick them up again. There is no easy way to distinguish “this book isn’t engaging me” from “I’m distracted”, so either the second half of the novella is better than the first or I became sufficiently focused to appreciate it. But every review can’t be a review of the reader, although in truth every review is of an event that exists between the story and the reader.

The Protector of the Kingdom is a powerful despot of a kingdom – a fantasy land with a Chinese aspect, as well as influences from South Asian and Middle-Eastern mythology. To her surprise the Protector gives birth to twins, causing a minor change in her many and complex plans. Cynical and manipulative, the twins are just chess pieces in the Protector’s many machinations but the story follows them as two people as they grow from infants to adults.

The scope of the novella is huge, and it covers a lot of ground in a short time. We learn about the magic system, aspects of the religious orders, ethnic minority groups, internal conflicts, fantastic beasts, and a broad picture of richly imagined fantasy world. It is probably too much for a novella that also has to encompass the childhood, adolescence and early adulthood of two central characters. Even so, that the novella doesn’t collapse under its own weight is a testament to the efficiency with which all this background is introduced.

As I said above, I found the second half easier to engage with than the first. It focuses more on Akeha, the surpising “spare” half of the twins, who in post-adolesence decides to be confirmed as a male (gender is assigned post-childhood in this world). Fate, prophercy, control and inevitability (whether magical or political) play out as important themes but, again, I think their impact as ideas get lost amid the scale of the story.

The Black Tides of Heaven is the first in a sequence of novellas set in the same world. I haven’t read the sequel The Red Threads of Fortune, which apparently follows the other twin Mokoya after the events of this story. I feel though I would have enjoyed this as a longer novel with a less fragmented sense of time. There were parts were I would have been happier to linger longer with the characters as they were.

Interesting in scope, and definitely Hugo worthy, it felt to me as edited highlights of a deeper story that I’d like to immerse myself in. I’ll definitely read the sequel.

Review: Ant-man & The Wasp

I think it is fair to say that Ant-man & The Wasp is the most inconsequential Marvel movie for some time. No new superheroes are introduced, no new approaches to the genre are taken, there is little impact on the other MCU films, there are no big or deep themes to discuss. It is the first MCU film to have the name of a female Avenger in the title but that’s about it.

But it is a fun, often silly film. Comical in a more low-key way than Thor: Ragnarok or Guardians of the Galaxy, the film knows that it is silly and embraces that. Often childish in a good way, it takes delight in the core premise that sometimes things can be very small and sometimes very big, turning cars into toy cars and vice-versa. It never quite manages the genius of the first film’s Thomas the Tank Engine train fight sequence but there is a genuine sense of fun in the Hot-Wheels like vehicle or the appearance of a giant Hello Kitty Pez-dispenser. The trailer has already shown the somewhat surreal office building that has a collapsible handle and trundle wheels as a luggage item for Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym.

Set after Captain America: Civil War and immediately before Infinity War, Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang is under house arrest but busy building a business with Luis (Michael Pena). Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are in hiding to escape the Segovia Accords. Lang’s previous foray into the ‘quantum realm’ has given them new hope that it might be possible to find and rescue Pym’s wife Janet Van Dyne (aka The Wasp) who disappeared into the quantum realm many years ago.

The FBI, a shady dealer in illegal technology and a mysterious figure who can phase in and out of existence are all out to make life more complex for the heroes in various ways. Filling out the cast is Laurence Fishburne as a former SHIELD scientist and Hannah John-Kamen (from ‘Killjoys’) who is an interestingly ambiguous antagonist.

Overall a better plot than the first Ant-man movie, it makes good use of the whole ensemble of characters. The truth-serum joke is the funniest but a giant ant taking a bath is a wonderfully surreal image.

A cameo from some tardigrades will make tardigrade fans happy.

A film with tiny ambitions and a big heart.

Review: The Incredibles 2

There is a lot of nostalgia around the original Incredibles film and not without reason. The film managed to capture a sense of superhero stories with a story that understood the history of the genre without feeling the need to treat it with reverence. Arguably it demonstrated that the best approach for a superhero film was to create its own cast of heroes (a theory refuted by the MCU). Yet it was also very much a Pixar film which meant clever artful animation telling character and emotion driven stories with an appeal across ages.

At the time Pixar eschewed sequels (with the exception of Toy Story) and despite the implications of the end of the film, a second Incredibles movie seemed unlikely. Time moves on and Disney-Pixar is keen to capitalise on the IP it owns. Could a sequel possibly manage that same balance of action and character?

Absolutely. Starting almost at the same point as the last film ends. The Parr family are still juggling the demands of a young family (work, baby, school) with the pressure to use their powers for good in a world where superheroes are still illegal. The good news is that there is popular (and financial) pressure to decriminalise superheroes and Elastigirl is exactly the hero who could be the public face of a move to win people over.

As with the original film there is a right-leaning individualism that suits the superhero genre well. Some of the stay-at-home-dad jokes feel like they are from an older decade but they serve to point out how physical and psychologically exhausting childcare is (although more so when your baby can move through additional dimensions).

The underlying super villain plot is genuinely exciting (although not hard to work out the twist). As other have pointed out, there is a reliance on some strong flashing light sequences that while artfully done, probably should have had a warning.

Clever and warm and character driven, The Incredibles 2 still manages to be one of the best superhero films in what is now a crowded category. At the same time it is a family driven drama full of compassion and humanity. I really loved it. I’m going to watch many times 🙂

Review: Luke Cage, Season 2

Each Netflix Marvel series that has had a second season has been less compelling the second time. Daredevil had a less focused story and without Vincent D’Onofrio’s compelling presence, the season felt more episodic. Jessica Jones season 2 also meandered more. Overall though, Luke Cage season 2 feels tighter and more story driven than season 1. It still has its flaws and like all of the Marvel Netflix series would probably have been better with fewer episodes.

At the start of the season, Mariah Dillard/Stokes (Alfre Woodward) has inherited the crime empire of her brother Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, as well as the Harlem Paradise club that serves as a focus for both seasons. A former politician and philanthropist, Mariah is seeking one last weapon’s deal to give her the money to go legit. Detective Misty Knight is living with the consequences of events in spin-off The Defenders series, having lost an arm in the line of duty. Luke Cage is battling his relationship with his estranged father, drug dealers trolling him by naming drugs after him and his relationship with Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson).

Into this mix walks the enigmatic Jamaican gangster known as “Bushmaster” (Mustafa Shakir). Bent on revenge for unknown reasons and with his own set of extraordinary powers, chaos erupts around him and both Cage’s and Mariah Dillard’s plans and expectations unravel.

So, yes, once again the theme is “immigrant ethnic group crime gang” bringing chaos and brutality. That’s part of the weird 1970’s urban crime aesthetic that both the Daredevil and Luke Cage series try to evoke and it carries with it a whole set of problems and negative stereotypes. But also, there’s a degree of subversion there as the story unfolds, Bushmaster becomes less of a monster and more of a character as the story progresses. Yet, the Jamaican characters overall rarely get to be shown as more than stereotypes.

The first nine episodes are fairly tight. There is a slower pace for the typical Luke Cage episode on average as the show takes time for music and conversation but that pace feels appropriate this season. Episodes 10–13 drift a bit more including a comic book mandatory Power Man/Iron Fist team up which wasn’t as painful as it could of been (having said that I think I’m more tolerant of Iron Fist than most) but there is a clever arc there that again shifts the trajectory of who is the chief villain here. It is fair to say that the season ends in an unexpected place for Luke Cage as a character but there’s a logic to it.