The Last Jedi Review

I was 7 years old the first time I saw the original Star Wars trilogy.  I was with my dad and siblings at my uncle’s cottage.  We watched all three films in one sitting – and I’m pretty sure my mom was pissed when we didn’t show up at home until well after midnight.  It is one of my favorite memories.  It’s been quite some time since that night, and the memory is getting considerably hazy under a rose-tinted fog.  The feelings I had that night, though, they’re as clear to me as they ever were, and I feel the same childlike sense of wonder every time I go back and rewatch those films.

The past is important in defining who we are.  The memories we have, the mistakes we’ve made, our trials and successes, etc.  Equally important is what lies ahead.  While you can’t remain fixated on the past, it’s important to reflect on it.  Similarly, in a fictional universe, it’s important to reflect on the established canon to ensure your characters remain true to who they are so the decisions they make can be reasonably believable in the given context.

“Let the past die,” is a line uttered in a bit of pivotal dialogue, and it’s a sentiment that is stated several times in other expositional exchanges throughout the film.  It’s Rian Johnson’s ham-fisted attempt at less than subtle direction toward the audience.  The film literally urges you, through dialogue, to let go of the past – to let go of your heroes, to let go of the 40 years of established lore and development, and to embrace this new saga.  Unfortunately, it makes little effort in letting go of the past itself while doing an outstanding job of bastardizing it.

I wouldn’t be able to fault Disney for trying something new if they actually tried something new.  It’s been 40 years since A New Hope, and this time is reflected in the new films, but there’s an overwhelming familiarity with everything from the First Order and all of their weaponry to the merry band of misfits trying to take them down.  Despite the fact that the Rebel Alliance defeated the Empire and established a New Republic, the galaxy as a whole still shares the aesthetics of the original trilogy.  The First Order is, essentially, what I suspect the Empire would look like after 40 years.  That all holds true in The Last Jedi.

The opening title scrawl informs audiences that the New Republic has fallen – I am assuming that this is because the Republic Senate was destroyed by Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens.  This is fairly hard to believe right at the onset – especially given that “The Resistance” was able to deal a devastating blow to the First Order in return by destroying Starkiller Base.  However, it’s the setting we are asked to accept, so accept it you will.  So, the New Republic has fallen and all that’s left is the dwindling forces of The Resistance – and they’re on the run from the First Order to establish a new Resistance base.  This is where the film opens.

The opening scene hits all of the right notes with a highly entertaining space battle that echoes the WWII dogfight films that inspired George Lucas for his original films.  Amidst the excitement, there’s the desperate attempt to make a break for it and get out of the First Order’s sights.  It attempts to evoke the sense of loss during the scene with multiple on-screen deaths of nameless or off-screen characters, and is fairly effective with the exception of a cheap all-hope-is-lost fake out.  It’s a strong opening for what should be a strong film.

Unfortunately, the film that follows is a bloated and plodding mess lacking much in the way of plot and character growth.  Exposition is less interested in decent plot progression and character growth than it is in throwaway jokes and divvying out side quests like a poorly written video game.  Finn’s bumbling charm is overdone and strays from what made him enjoyable in The Force Awakens.  Poe’s opening gag is entertaining and mirrors his introduction in The Force Awakens, but it drags on far too long.  Additionally, his actions and decisions this go-round seem antithetical to the character that was established in the previous film.  In place of a man who put himself at risk for the good of The Resistance is an impulsive “flyboy” who is okay with executing an ill-conceived plan that will result in heavy casualties.

The damning change in character, however, is in Master Jedi Luke Skywalker himself.  Gone is the hero of the Rebellion, redeemer of Darth Vader, and last of the Jedi Order.  In his stead is a disappointing, poorly executed analogue for Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi.  The resultant character and related subplot makes me wonder if Rian Johnson has, at all, any understanding of what Obi-Wan’s motivations were in his self-exile in addition to question his grasp of who Luke Skywalker is as a character.  There are shining moments – Luke toying with Rey when she reaches out to feel the Force oozes with the personality of Yoda on Dagobah and is one of the best light moments of the film, and his role in the film’s climax made me feel like a child watching Star Wars again – but the events that transpired between Return of the Jedi and The Last Jedi (which are touched upon in flashbacks during the film) are far from sufficient for this drastic departure from the established character of who Luke is at his core.

Flaws in characterization aside, the story of the film, as a whole, seems like it would be served better as the first act of a three-act film than as the entirety of a two-and-a-half-hour film.  Aside from the Luke and Rey subplot, and a 40-minute detour filled with questionable visual gags and CG characters that would be condemned had they showed up in the Special Editions or Prequels, the entirety of the film follows the adventures of a small band of Resistance fighters looking for a new home base.  Where previous Star Wars films were epic and expansive adventures through a previously unseen galaxy, the latest entry is, at its core, a chase scene in the vast vacuum of space.

The film isn’t without it’s merits, however.  It is hard, for the most part, to fault the film’s visuals.  The use of red and high contrast in certain scenes is absolutely gorgeous.  The reds and whites of the climax are visual candy, but this scene is hindered by the fact that it is a poor reconstruction of the battle of Hoth.  The throne room is arresting in its oppressiveness, but it is also the setting for one of the most disappointing scenes of the entire film – not because of what happened, but because of how unbelievably anticlimactic it did happen.

Some of the film’s stronger points are not necessarily well-executed.  The film plays with the themes of profiteering from war and conflict – an idea that should spawn several post-film discussions.  However, the heavy-handed exposition leaves little subtlety and feels jarringly out of place.  Unfortunately, that can be said about the majority of the dialogue in the film.  There’s a disconnect between the events occurring on-screen and the behavior of the characters experiencing those events.

If this weren’t a Star Wars film, I have no doubt that I would have been able to enjoy it for what it was.  But it is a Star Wars movie, and its many sins are unforgivable.  It succeeds in evoking a lot of the emotions I have while watching the original trilogy because it does such a fantastic job of emulating those films.  But, that doesn’t make it a good movie – and certainly not a good Star Wars film.

Star Wars, to many people, is more than just a series of films – it is something that transcended the idea of what a movie could be.  It defined modern cinema and reshaped science fiction.  It gave us some of our greatest cinematic heroes – heroes that weren’t infallible, and sometimes weren’t even likeable, but they would go on to have a lasting impact on the audience long after the credits rolled.  It gave us some of the greatest large-scale battles in cinema – it gave us Hoth.  But, above all of these things, it gave us the Jedi.  The original trilogy gave us Jedi as mystical space wizards that are all but extinct.  The prequel trilogy gave us the Jedi in their prime – it deconstructed the mysticism and presented them in a way that could be seen as an analogy on corporatist religion in positions of government influence.

The Last Jedi takes 40 years of established lore and character development and discards it in favor of doing “something new” while refusing to actually do something new.  It relies on familiar aesthetics and emulates iconic scenarios in a successful attempt to evoke nostalgic feelings of joy.  What it doesn’t do is maintain consistency with its previous entry, regard canon, or respect its characters.

As a film, The Last Jedi is enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable.  It fails to establish its own identity while urging you to forget the past – meanwhile, it beats you over the head with the past with blatant mimicry.  As a Star Wars film, it’s insulting, and I can’t imagine the return of the Jedi in the next film being anything more than another play on nostalgia lacking any kind of originality or respect for the established lore.


1 / 3 – Bad


Logan Review

The X-Men film franchise is one of the most lopsided film series out there.  The first two films helped to define modern superhero cinema.  Origins was mediocre at best, terrible at worst.  First Class helped to restore my faith in the franchise, while Apocalypse was a massive letdown.  I’ve come to learn that it may be best to go into an X-Men film with no expectations to help lessen any potential disappointment.  I forewent that that rule with Logan.  I’ve been 100% hype for that film since the very moment rumors of an Old Man Logan film started making their way to the internet.  I was not disappointed.

The timeline in the X-Men films is so convoluted and filled with inconsistencies that it almost doesn’t matter when or how this film takes place.  It’s 2029, mutants are a thing of the past, Logan is a bitter old man and a heavy drinker, and Charles is kept locked up in a collapsed water tower.  It’s a tragically bleak setting with a compelling backstory that doesn’t get fleshed out in heavy-handed dialogue.  Instead, audiences are left to connect the dots as characters engage in conversations that have a real-world, organic feel.  There are no moments where the film breaks character to tell you something.  Every bit of dialogue that is spoken is said to someone who has lived in this world – someone who is familiar with what has happened over the last decade.  Viewers are visitors in this world, and it’s a harsh world that won’t welcome in anyone with open arms.  But those who take the time to familiarize themselves with their surroundings and its history will be well rewarded.

It’s been 17 years since the X-Men film franchise debuted and, since the initial film, each movie has been a (mostly) family-friendly PG-13 (Deadpool excepted).  With Logan, fans are treated with the brutally hard-R rated film they’ve been waiting for.  Seventeen years is appropriate timing for an R-rated goodbye to the two best roles in the franchise, even if it is hard to say “goodbye.”  Logan takes full advantage of its elevated rating, featuring some of the most graphic scenes in a comic book film not based on the works of Frank Miller.  But the brutality, the graphic violence, the language – none of it ever feels forced.  As organic as the dialogue is in the film, the violence on display feels equally appropriate.

As rewarding as it is to see The Wolverine in his full glory ripping through body parts with his adamantium claws, there’s a contrasting balance as the weight of his exploits weighs heavily on him.  He has long ago reached a point where this violence is something so ingrained in him that there’s nothing but a buried conscience and aching bones keeping the claws in.  The graphic action sequences and the aftermath that follows is a poetically beautiful visual of this ongoing, internal struggle that just happens to be fun to watch.

There’s a beauty in the subtler aspects of the film.  When it’s not gracing you with sharp dialogue and viscerally brutal fight scenes, Logan navigates deftly through the film’s narrative by omitting direct exposition.  The film tells you more by saying less.  Important plot points and backstories are often not told directly to the audience – they’re hinted at with offhand remarks or background noise that feels natural.  It never dumbs things down to let you know what happened, it expects you to embrace this world enough to just know.

While several of the previous X-Men films have been enjoyable in their own right, it’s sad see that the franchise waited until the two greatest players said their goodbyes to offer a truly great film.  It is a well-crafted experience that will challenge the idea of what makes a comic movie great – taking viewers on a journey through their emotional range before leaving them seated in silence as the cinema fades to black.  There may never be an X-Men movie that achieves the same level of greatness as Logan.  And that’s okay.

Good – 3 / 3

Finding Dory Review

Pixar has, for years, defined quality family entertainment.  Their art direction has been emulated in several other films, and there’s a natural maturity to the films that is relatable to the countless adults in attendance.  The films are “safe” for children, even if the source material therein isn’t exactly targeted at them, though the marketing is.  Pixar is capable of creating worlds that are enticing for everyone with a beating heart and a sense of joy, with rarely a misstep between releases.  It’s no surprise, then, that Finding Dory is absolutely fantastic.

When the film was first announced, I was apprehensive.  Pixar’s last sequel, Cars 2, was one of those rare missteps.  It was a film that existed solely to sell merchandise and offered very little substance beyond that.  Not that Pixar is incapable of crafting worthy sequels, as the Toy Story franchise has proven, but the story of Finding Nemo felt complete.  I wasn’t begging for a sequel; I took the journey and was satisfied with the conclusion.  I was afraid that a sequel would be an unnecessary rehash and a cash grab.  How wrong I was.

Finding Dory opens, like every Pixar movie, with an animated short.  This one, titled Piper, tells the story of a little bird that needs to get its first meal on its own.  It’s a simple premise that is artfully crafted into one of the most charming shorts I’ve ever seen.  The animation is downright beautiful with a beach that feels real enough to walk on.  From the frothy waves lapping up on shore to the individual grains of sand that stick believably to the feathers of little Piper, the world feels so incredibly real and believable that Morgan Freeman’s voice narrating this bird’s journey to independence wouldn’t feel out of place.  It’s a charming short that tells viewers, without speaking a single word, “You can do great things.”  The cynicism that’s blossomed within me over the years got some much needed weeding from the pure joy I felt during Piper’s short runtime.  Its theme is one that fits well with the film that follows.  It’s such a beautifully charming short capable of making even the hardest of hearts laugh, if only for a moment.

Piper was such a strong opening, I had high expectations from that point forward.  Finding Dory is more as much a prequel as it is a sequel.  The story opening with a very young Dory and her patient parents as they work with her and her memory issues.  See, Dory has problems with short-term memory loss and is easily distracted.  As a result, her parents have to use shells and rhymes to embed important things into her memory, with varying results.

Throughout the film, we’re taken back to these moments as Dory encounters something that triggers her memory.  It creates a non-linear narrative that encompasses the story that was told in Finding Nemo without relying too heavily on its predecessor.  Sure, there are various callbacks to Finding Nemo, and being familiar with the characters might help the world to feel a little more familiar, but there’s absolutely nothing in Finding Dory that would alienate new viewers.  It’s a film that stands on its own, despite living in an existing universe.  There’s only a handful of characters from the first film that make an appearance, and even less that are actually featured as main characters.

The majority of the film – aside from focusing on Dory, Marlin, and Nemo – is composed of a variety of new characters.  Joining the cast of characters is Kaitlyn Olson as a near-sighted whale shark named Destiny, Ty Burrell as a beluga whale suffering from issues with echolocation after a recent concussion, and Ed O’Neill as an ornery “septopus” who is looking for a ticket to a Cleveland aquarium where he’ll be able to live a secluded life in a box free from getting touched.

Hank is easily my new favorite character to make its way into an animated movie.  He plays the unlikely hero as he agrees to help Dory only in exchange for her tag – a ticket to Cleveland.  As he spends more time with Dory, he slowly begins to sympathize with the character, and even care about her.  It’s a fluid evolution as Hank never transitions from being a self-serving anti-social jerk to a compassionate hero.  Hank, by the film’s end, is the same as he was, at his core, when he first met Dory.  We’re shown right off the bat that he isn’t entirely heartless – in fact, he has three.  He also has a set of principles:  a deal is a deal and I’ll make sure I hold up my end of said deal.  If that deal sees him taking some unexpected detours, he’ll take them.

It’s not just his personality, though, that makes Hank stand out.  That helps, for sure, but the creative animation transforms him from being just an abrasive cynic to a truly memorable and even iconic animated character.  Hank is a ruby octopus – well, he’s missing a tentacle, so Dory refers to him as a septopus.  In addition to using his array of tentacles to walk, crawl, and sling his way around, Hank also has the ability to perfectly mimicking his surroundings with his camouflage.  This sets up some brilliant visual gags and makes the character that much more endearing.

All of the new characters, though, add something special to the mix.  From the territorial sea lions to Bailey and his use of the world’s most powerful glasses, each inhabitant of this wonderfully zany universe is memorable in his or her own right.  The dialogue is sharp and witty, and the talented cast breathes life into the characters with heart and impeccable timing.

Finding Dory is, in some regards, a similar movie to its predecessor.  You have a fish embarking on a journey to find a family that was lost.  At its core, however, it’s a much smaller, more personal tale that trades the ocean-spanning adventure of the first film for a more focused character piece.  The majority of the film takes place in a single location with only one brief scene spent getting there.  It’s less a journey of finding someone else, and more of a journey of self-discovery.  Not only for Dory, but for the characters around her.  The film poses the question of “who is Dory?”  By the time the film concludes, she’ll feel as much a part of your family as she is a part of the family she’s looking for.

While I felt that Finding Dory took a full act of its own before it really found its groove (possibly because of the impossibly high expectations I had following Piper), the story, characters, and everything in between was a joy to watch.  Finding Dory is another standout Pixar film with tons of heart.  For each moment you laugh, there will be another, perfectly fitting moment of heartfelt sincerity that yanks at your emotions.  It’s hard to find a film that’s contains such a perfect blend of contrasting emotional themes, but it’s handled with such grace that viewers will be finding Dory, her cohorts, and the heartwarming journey they take entertaining for years to come.


Good – 3 / 3

Warcraft movie review

Videogame films have a long history of being among some of the worst films ever made.  Not from a lack of solid source material, but the execution has always proved lacking.  Early reviews of this summer’s Warcraft movie seemed to indicate that would be the case, yet again, with the first live action adaptation of one of the biggest franchises in the realm of PC gaming.  Early box office numbers seem to suggest otherwise.

The film thrusts viewers into the dying world of Draenor – the Orc homeworld.  We don’t know why it’s dying, but things are grim for this tribal race of warriors.  Hope for the Orcs lies beyond a portal into a new world.  To open and sustain this portal, the Orcish shaman Gul’dan harnesses the power of a mysterious magic known as “the fel.”  It’s a dark magic fueled by death, and a major driving force in the film’s plot.  The amount of energy required to open this portal is immense as Gul’dan harvests the life force of thousands of captives to lead an invading force into this new world, Azeroth.

As a relative newcomer to the lore of Warcraft, having only played one of the original games and less than 20 hours of World of Warcraft, I expected to be lost going into this film.  From the early reviews, it seemed like this was going to be a tale that would only make sense for viewers with a background in the established mythos of Warcraft.  However, I found this assumption to be hugely inaccurate.  While there were moments early in the narrative that felt confusing, the exposition, both from character dialogue and situational context, helped to weave those threads into a coherent plot that was genuinely enjoyable.

The basic premise of the film is rather simple:  a warrior race is moving to a new home, but the natives there don’t take too kindly to that invasion – especially since those invaders are working hard to kill everything in their path.  The way it progresses and the subtle intricacies peppered in the story’s intertwining subplots elevate the basic foundation of the plot and creates an entire world rich with fantasy lore and memorable characters.  It’s not as straightforward as a brutish horde encroaching on a civilized world.  There’s internal conflict from within the tribe as some Orcs begin to question if what Gul’dan is doing is right for the Orcs, or if he’s leading them down a destructive path that blasphemes their heritage and traditions.  The trailers for the film hint at unlikely alliances being formed as a result of these internal conflicts, but when these events take place in the film, the payoff is grand.  It not only sets up one of the best action scenes in the movie, but also unveils new mysteries that send viewers off to fantastic new locations as the players in the Alliance try to stop the rest of the devastating Horde from breaking through from Draenor and destroying the world of Azeroth.

While I can’t say that there’s anything particularly outstanding about the plot – nothing life-changing or deeply impactful – the story manages to be entertaining for the film’s 2-hour runtime.  The fantasy lore is deep and intriguing.  It doesn’t ease viewers in, necessarily, but it does a great job during the 120 minutes you’re in Azeroth to get you caught up.  It doesn’t go out of its way to remind viewers with callbacks or reiterating plot points; instead, exposition in this world feels natural with characters expecting their associates to remember a previous plot point without having to repeat it.  Some viewers may suffer during a first viewing, but the end result feels more organic than hearing a rehash of dialogues and ideas.

The world of Azeroth is a fantastical one filled with numerous fantasy races, powerful mages, devastating warriors, and fearsome Orcs.  The characters in the world are natural in this fantasy realm.  The dialogue is a blend of pseudo old timey expressions melded with contemporary English to give each line a fantasy feel without alienating audiences by being hard to follow.  The only confusion really comes with trying to keep track of characters and locales by name.  As strong as the cast of characters is, the otherworldly nomenclatures are definitely not easy to remember.

Being a fantasy action epic, there’s plenty of fantasy action to be had in Warcraft.  The world is inhabited by formidable warriors and powerful mages.  The Orcs that invade Azeroth are these gigantic, brutish beasts that wield proportionally large weapons.  These massive foes dwarf the humans of the alliance and their prowess of using pure force is downright terrifying when you see them in action.  The combat scenes are as intense as they are entertaining.  Unlike other fantasy films where the heroes are just slightly outmatched in strength by their foes, the Orcs in Warcraft are towering mounds of muscle that can toss a horse without breaking a sweat.  These aren’t end bosses in dungeons, these are the grunts in this army – each one just as powerful as the next.  It’s a genuine blast seeing just how devastating they can be in combat.

It’s not just the war hammers and battle axes that have this devastating impact.  Sorcery is also hugely important in the world of Warcraft.  The previously mentioned “fel” is a terrifying dark magic that feeds on life energy and can be used to bestow or, more appropriately, infect others with this power.  There are a number of spells that make an appearance in the film with each having this startlingly forceful power.  Even a teleport spell feels impressive when the bass reverberates throughout the cinema.

Warcraft is a huge IP.  Millions of gamers are still logging countless hours in World of Warcraft.  The franchise is no stranger to other mediums, and film feels like the next logical step for the brand.  And it’s one that makes sense.  The universe is huge, and the action lends itself well to a summer blockbuster.  Thankfully, the lore is interesting enough to keep the plot moving forward when characters aren’t engaging in combat.  It’s a loud, fun, summer flick that has plenty of depth to keep viewers invested.  While it may not win any awards, it’s certainly entertaining and absolutely worth a watch.


Good – 3 / 3

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows Review

The very idea of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a silly one.  Initially a parody of other popular comics in the 80s, TMNT would explode in its own popularity spanning a series of television shows, live-action and animated movies, and arcade and console games.  While it’s certainly not as popular nowadays as it was in its heyday, the fact that the four turtles are still recognizable to children over thirty years later is a testament to the brand’s appeal.  The Turtles are back in cinemas this summer in Out of the Shadows, the sequel to the 2014 reboot of the film franchise.  Is it worth a watch?

The film begins with an animated stunt sequence and a short break at a basketball game before diving into a little plot.  It’s fun enough, but serves little purpose other than a silly gag featuring the anthropomorphic turtles’ dish of choice:  pizza.  From there, audiences are “treated” to a gratuitous amount of Megan Fox doing that thing she does in movies.  The dialogue exchange between Fox’s April O’Neil and Tyler Perry’s Dr. Baxter Stockman is hammy and dumb, but it feels consistent with the overall tone of the film.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the sequence that follows as April sheds her outer layer for a quick costume change to make sure the film gets in its requisite sex appeal.

The story is set one year after the last film.  Shredder has been defeated and is in prison.  Will Arnett’s Vern Fenwick is, according to an agreement made with the Turtles, regarded as the hero who brought down The Shredder.  And, thanks to this agreement, the Turtles are able to remain in the shadows protecting New York.

After our detour at the basketball game, we learn that The Shredder is being transported and there’s a plan to break him out.  This sets up a solid highway chase sequence with as many laughs and explosions as there are groans.  Some of the dialogue is just plain stupid but, most times, it works favorably for the film.  The actors know they’re in a silly movie and they appear to be having fun with that, chewing through some painful writing with a mouthful of cheese and a toothy grin.

The plot opens up after the highway scene with what could have been something awesome: Krang and Dimension X.  Unfortunately, exposition is not one of this movie’s strong points.  I’d like to say it’s formulaic in its plot progression, but that would be giving the film far too much credit.  It tries to be – it pretty rapidly moves from point to point to point, but each point is a misstep on a scenic route for about two thirds of the movie.  After it finally takes us somewhere we want to be, the film forgets the fact that an important item has gone missing so it can rehash some group conflict that was already covered in the first movie.  While the Turtles are caught up in their moody discourse and shunning of each other, the bad guys get to move forward with their evil plot.  It’s all good, though, because we need that to happen for that final boss fight – which is, sadly, less spectacular than it should be given everything that’s involved.

Out of the Shadows does a solid job keeping the Turtles true to their roots while keeping them updated enough so they don’t feel like they’re trapped in the 90s.  Contrasting this, you have Bebop and Rocksteady.  The character designs are perfect, even if the execution is a little off.  Despite how good the CG renders of the Turtles are, Bebop and Rocksteady never really look believable in this world.  Still, it is fun seeing them on the big screen – even if there are some missteps with how the characters are handled.  As if to make sure the film wouldn’t get a PG rating, the two need to check their nether regions to see how everything was changed after their mutation.  It’s a small thing, but something that doesn’t jibe with the rest of the film, regardless how messy it is.

The problem with the film isn’t the campy dialogue and one-liners – while some lines definitely don’t work and the script is quite a mess, the Turtles’ banter and Mikey’s quips are, more often than not, enjoyable.  The problem is the film’s nonsensical plot and incoherent editing.  I’m not expecting Shakespearean level art here, but staying focused on a single idea instead of pointless tangents would make the film a little more watchable (I can’t call them subplots, because these detours don’t have any plot).  Its few shining moments are far outweighed by the wasted potential, misguided writing, and shoehorned sexuality.  This could have easily been a great summer film anyone could enjoy.  Unfortunately, the end result is something that can be entertaining in short bursts, but offers little enjoyment as a whole.


Bad – 1 / 3

The Monkees: Good Times! Review

I was introduced to The Monkees as a kid.  Long past their days of the phenomenon they were in the mid to late sixties.  I had a cassette tape of their greatest hits my mom gave me, and that’s how I knew them.  I didn’t know they were a made-for-TV fake pop band at their inception.  To me, they were just a band.  I knew their names.  I knew their voices.  I knew their music.  That’s what mattered to me as a kid.  Not who played the instruments on their first two albums, just the music.

It wasn’t until Justus and the TV special episode of their show in the late 90s that I learned that they were, indeed, an assembled group of guys who were supposed to pretend to be a band.  Learning this didn’t affect my view of their music, but it did encourage my curiosity to know more about them.  I read more, listened more, and watched more.  I learned that while they may have had little input on their first two albums, they fought for and gained creative control over their music.  I learned that their third album, Headquarters, was entirely produced by the fake band that was previously called out for not playing their own instruments.  I learned about their psychedelic cult film Head.  I learned about how they’d eventually go their own ways, regain popularity again in the 80s, and make one last album in the 90s.  I listened to every song, every “missing link,” and every deluxe album.  I can hum and sing along with all their tunes.  They’ve become a part of me – defining my tastes and curating my sense of humor.  When Davy Jones passed away in 2012, I felt a sense of loss I can’t say I’ve ever experienced with the death of a celebrity, and I was sure The Monkees were over.

It’s been twenty years since the last Monkees studio album was released.  While the previous two reunion albums, Pool it! and Justus, attempted to be more contemporary with the music that was hot at the time, Good Times! takes a different approach by bringing the band back to their roots.  The new album features new tracks written specifically for The Monkees by a variety of talented artists including original Monkees songwriters Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, and Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart.  Included in the new cast of writers is Andy Partridge of XTC, Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, among others.  The surviving three Monkees didn’t just sit this one out and provide vocals, however, with Peter, Micky, and Mike penning three tracks on the 13-track album and, yes, playing their own instruments.

The album starts strong with the title track “Good Times.”  It’s a song that dives into the backlog of Monkees history with duet vocals provided by the late Harry Nilsson, who wrote the track, and Micky Dolenz.  It’s a great, energetic frame for the album that follows.  Davy Jones’ unparalleled charm is also brought back to life on Good Times! with the Neil Diamond penned “Love to Love.”  While the song may be familiar to some fans, the track never got a proper release, having only been previously included in one of the Missing Links collections.

Good Times! invites you on a journey through the past and the band’s evolution, and it gives you 13 good reasons to take that journey.  From upbeat bubblegum songs like “You Bring the Summer” and “She Makes Me Laugh” to more somber and thoughtful tracks like “Me & Magdalena” and “I Know What I Know” – both featuring Mike Nesmith on lead vocals – Good Times! has a solid variety of tunes that would feel at home on any of the band’s first 9 albums.

I’ve listened to the album several times now – each time with an ear-to-ear grin – and there aren’t any duds.  Some songs may not stand out quite as strong, but there isn’t a weak track to be found.  Having grown up listening to The Monkees, and having little hope that I’d ever hear new songs from them, it’s strangely emotional to hear this new material.  The experience of hearing these familiar sounds and voices in something entirely new is overwhelming.  Good Times! perfectly encapsulates everything that made The Monkees speak to me so strongly growing up.  It’s a striking return to form and a beautiful love letter to their fans and their legacy.  It’s an absolutely perfect way to come back… and say goodbye.


Good – 3 / 3

Fable Anniversary Re-Review

Fable Anniversary

It’s hard to think that ten years ago, now, I was taking my first trip to Albion – a curious land that would devour hours of my time and earn my devout allegiance.  Fable has never been known for a lengthy main campaign, but the games have always offered a substantial amount of side content and secrets that encourage players to invest more than the 10 or so hours it would take to just beat the game.  The franchise has been the victim of its own over-hyping, but nonetheless it’s a franchise I hold near and dear to my heart and I’m thrilled that I now have the opportunity to replay the first game, my personal favorite, fully remade.

Fable is an interesting beast.  As a friend of mine has described the games, “It’s very British.”  It’s a cheeky game with some great hit-or-miss humour but all wrapped in a charming package with a great story.  The storytelling in Fable has never been high art or anything of that sort, but the games always have a well-crafted, non-linear plot, something I appreciate.  The Fable universe has been keeping me entertained and intrigued for ten years now, and I’m pleased to say that the re-release more than does the premiere installment justice.

Fable Ann Compare 1I’ve really grown to appreciate how Microsoft handles their remakes.  While you see a ton of “HD” re-releases from the last console generation hitting the market from several other publishers, those games suffer from a severe case of “uprezzing.”  Little more is done with those titles than giving players new high-resolution textures and widescreen support to stare at – the visuals are still relatively unchanged from the initial game release.  Now new character models, no new particle effects, no new lighting, no new audio… it’s the same game but just a bit (and I mean a bit) shinier.

Microsoft Studios, on the other hand, completely remakes the game visually.  The original game content and experience is untouched (aside from maybe some new controller options) while the game’s visuals are rebuilt with maybe a healthy helping of new audio to go along with it (with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary being a prime example of new audio really lending to the rebuilt experience).  It’s not just a high resolution copy of an already made game, it’s a complete visual reimagining of a world we’re already familiar with.  Perfect Dark and Halo really demonstrated that Microsoft was dedicated to nurturing its properties and giving fans more than just a recycled product.  Fable does the same.

While the gameplay may not hold up as well next to its more modern counterparts, the experience that I loved ten years ago is still there.  The belching, the farting, the questing… it’s still the classic Fable experience that so consumed much of my mid-to-late teen years and every moment I spend in the game is accompanied by a nostalgic high.  I love Fable and this is the game that always comes to mind when I think of revisiting Albion… I’m almost ashamed that it’s been so long since I’ve worked my way through the first game (which, I’ll admit, I haven’t played through since Fable II was released).  I’m not, though.  Playing through Fable Anniversary, in spite of the many, many times I’ve played through the first game, is, amidst the nostalgia, almost a new experience again since it has been so long.  It feels fresh, yet familiar and not just because of the visual update.

The visuals, though, are great.  It’s really nice to see that such a great amount of care went into rebuilding the world of Albion.  It is, however, hindered by the aged and clunky animations of the 2004 game hiding underneath.  While some things feel revamped and fluid, there are those awkward moments where characters will freeze and whip around robotically.  It’s jarring and takes from the experience ever so slightly – but as a whole, the game looks great and the love that went into recreating Albion is apparent in every screen.

Fable Ann Compare 2

I know I may be biased and looking at the game through rose-tinted glasses or whatever, but Fable Anniversary feels great.  Playing the game brings me some kind of gaming bliss and the new visuals should set a new standard for HD remakes – something I also said about Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary.  I feel like the folks working under the Microsoft Studios banner aren’t given enough credit for the work they do on their HD remakes – though that’s a topic for another time, I suppose.

Fable Anniversary is an old game dressed in new game clothing.  It’s as fun as it was ten years ago, but looks substantially better.  Giving loyal Xbox fans achievements to earn is another plus.  Fable is a piece of gaming history and this Anniversary re-release does it justice, it would be hard, even when not considering my bias, to not recommend this game… it’s just too much fun and the budget price makes it even more enticing.


Fable Anniversary: 4 out of 5

Diablo III console edition impressions


I can’t really label this a review since I haven’t completed the game yet and don’t really have a fully formulated opinion of it.  But, I have spent several hours with the console release (specifically the Xbox 360 version) of Diablo III and have some thoughts I’d like to put down on digital paper.  The game is over a year old on PCs now and so it doesn’t really warrant a review in that sense.  It’s Diablo – the king of dungeon crawlers.  It’s awesome.  Yada yada.  But how does it play on consoles?

Pretty great, actually.  Honestly, for several years now I’ve been favoring console dungeon crawlers over their PC counterparts.  There’s not always a whole lot of ports, but since the days of the Dreamcast, I’ve been doing most of my killing and looting with a controller in hand.  This isn’t to spark a PC vs. Consoles debate, this is just my preference (and you’d damn well better respect my preference).  PC gamers tend to have a bit of apprehension when it comes to ports of their beloved mouse and keyboard exclusives.  Sometimes they’re right to be worried (typically, real-time strategy games (RTS) don’t translate well to console controls), but sometimes their apprehension is unfounded.  Thankfully that’s the case with Diablo III.

diablo-3-demon-hunter-02Personally, I wasn’t worried about the transition.  I had enjoyed Torchlight immensely in its console release (and sincerely hope that its sequel gets some new life on consoles) and knew that Bilzzard was more than capable of delivering a high-quality port.  They did, too.

I think the biggest selling point for me on the console version is the couch co-op.  I can be old school at times and so I’d much rather be playing a game with my friends in the same room as me than as disembodied voices over the internet.  It’s a much more enjoyable experience.  That being said, killing, questing, and looting is so much more rewarding to me when I can sit back on the couch and maybe throw back a couple of drinks with my pals while making clever or not-so-clever quips.  It’s great to have that social interaction mixed in with my favorite hobby.  It also helps that the translation to consoles didn’t affect the fun factor of Diablo.

It would be insulting to say that there’s not much to the game on PC, but in playing games like Diablo it has a missing sense of control.  With playing the game with a controller in hand, I feel much more like I’m playing a game.  My character moves where I’m leading him and reacts to my every move – I’m not just telling him what to do and he follows my commands; I’m given a much greater sense of control.  That is what I like about playing Diablo III on my console.  Does the console version have its drawbacks?  Sure.  It’s not perfect, but it offers to me as a gamer more of what I’m looking for in a game than the PC version does.

The biggest disappointment I have with Diablo III is less of something the game did wrong and more of a hugely missed opportunity.  Couch co-op is great.  I love sitting with my pals and playing this game on the same screen.  However, sharing the screen during inventory management sessions sucks.  Only one player at a time can view his or her inventory or have any interactions with merchants.  This breaks the flow of the game and results in several sessions of checking facebook or playing games on your phone while you wait for your pals to finish up their shopping, crafting, and customizing.  This is something that could have been easily remedied with SmartGlass.  Let’s say that you’ve got 3 friends over and you’re all looking to score some epic loot.  Well, while Johnny McSlowshopper is browsing the shops, you can connect with SmartGlass and interact with a shop keep or examine and manage your inventory on your phone while the television is occupied with someone else’s menu.  This would have been a great solution in keeping the game moving at all times rather than making every trip to town a 20+ minute ordeal because you have to take turns managing your inventory.  With that said, it’s a relatively minor complaint.  It’s not a broken gameplay mechanic or a fatal flaw in the game, it’s just a painfully missed opportunity.


Diablo III on the console is a blast.  It’s pretty much everything you can expect from a Diablo game while giving you a little bit more joy with couch co-op.  It’s a welcome addition to my gaming library and I’m sure I’m going to sink many, many hours into its loot-filled world.


Diablo III is currently available on PC, Xbox 360, and PS3.  A PS4 release is planned and in development.

Kick Ass 2 Review


The first Kick Ass, for me, was entirely unexpected.  I knew nothing about the comic upon which the film was based and was joyfully surprised by the film’s wit and brutally over-the-top violence.  It was a breath of fresh air in the world of comic book films that are trying to be grittier or more realistic in the wake of Chris Nolan’s Batman flicks.  It was a terrifically fun romp and I was anxious for more.

Enter Kick Ass 2 – the bigger budget sequel to one of the most fun superhero flicks that seeks to outdo its predecessor.  While I can’t say that the film succeeds in its ambitions, it certainly puts up a good effort.


Kick Ass 2 begins two years after the first movie ended.  Chris D’Amico is an emotionally unstable manchild who is pissed at Kick Ass.  Meanwhile, masked vigilantes inspired by Kick Ass are taking to the streets to help those in need; whether it’s feeding the hungry or busting up an illegal poker game run by human traffickers.  Kick Ass himself, however, isn’t present in this group of heroes – no, he gave up vigilantism in favor of living a boring teenage life.  Leading this masked band of misfits, calling themselves Justice Forever, is Colonel Stars and Stripes.

Amidst all the heroics, the film gets lost in some high school drama and heavy-handed character development.  While I’m fully aware that character development is necessary for driving the story, the primary players have already had their backgrounds and personalities laid out in the first film.  The sequel sees them straying away from the character traits you’re expecting and often abandons the high quality wit of the first in favor of a more realistic or even cliched scenario.

kick-ass-2-posterTonally, the film fails to hold up the high energy of the original.  It still has its moments where it shines, but it attempts to be darker and more serious than the first film.  While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it wasn’t entirely expected.  Going in knowing that Jim Carrey had a starring role – even having his image and name billed on posters – I was expecting more on the comedic side.  While he certainly fills the role well, I can’t help but feel he was under utilized.  There’s one scene in particular where Jim Carrey shined as Col. Stars and Stripes, but the character didn’t really feel like it took advantage of him and his abilities.

The film’s climax was disappointing to me and, I feel, it didn’t really live up to the buildup, but even with its flaws, the film is full of energy and has some great action.  Some of the high school drama feels over done and unnecessary, but there was always something unexpected and thrilling making up for the films lulls.  It’s a fun film that doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor, but it’s still well worth sitting through.


Kick Ass 2:  3 out of 5

Star Trek: Into Darkness Review


A new Star Trek for a new audience may be the best way to describe this sequel to the 2009 alternate timeline reboot.  We’ve got the same characters, the same Starfleet, and the same (kinda) NCC-1701 USS Enterprise and, as a fan of the series, it’s great to see all of these on the big screen.  But, despite the familiarities, it’s apparent that this Trek is a new and exciting journey that is trying to sever the ties, while making clever references, and carve its own identity.

Being set some time after the first film, Into Darkness has characters settling into their more traditional roles.  Spock and Kirk aren’t at each other’s throats and it’s evident that Kirk has sincerely embraced his friendship with Spock.  It’s a nice change from the tense relationship between the two in the previous film and more in-line with the characters from The Original Series (TOS).  There’s witty banter between the two and the relationship between Spock and Uhura gets some worthwhile focus as well which leads to some well-done character interactions and hilarious dialogue between the Kirk, Spock, and Uhura.

The film’s primary plot has been the subject of speculation and rumors for some time with fans believing that Benedict Cumberbatch’s villainous character was Khan Noonien Singh from TOS’s “Space Seed” and the film The Wrath of Khan or Gary Mitchell from the season 1 TOS episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”  While it’s evident that there is a great deal of direct influence from TOS’s existing plots, Cumberbatch’s John Harrison is very much a product of this new Trek for a new audience.  Fans can sit back and pick out all the clever references and embrace this villain while new audiences are able to enjoy the struggles of the Enterprise and her crew against this fierce opponent unburdened by the necessity of having to know the series’ history.

Plot progression is done very well with location changes and new developments providing a wonderfully coherent but incredibly diverse experience.  The film forges its path like a composition of six mini-episodes where the climax is the penultimate episode leaving audiences with a “To Be Continued…” cliffhanger and the finale wrapping up the conflict, restoring order, and teasing what the next season holds for us.  Even with its distinct take on the property that often feels alien in the Star Trek universe, the film unfolds in the way you’d hope or expect a Star Trek film to and is the perfect model for what future entries in the series should strive for.

Characters differ from their TOS counterparts.  In some instances, this is understandable.  Shatner’s Kirk from the Star Trek of the past is brash and sometimes reckless, but in a responsible way.  He’s not going to forego protocol simply to forego protocol.  If he can find a way that won’t endanger his crew and disregard the Prime Directive, he’ll make the right call.  This isn’t to say that Shatner’s Kirk was the perfect model of a Starfleet commander, but he did still respect, to a certain extent, the rules even though he was willing to break them when necessary.

Chris Pine’s Kirk is much less refined.  He’s like a child given a set of responsibilities for which he is absolutely not ready.  He’s reckless with little or no thought about the consequences.  He doesn’t think of whether or not there is a better approach, he takes the quickest or the easiest one simply because he feels that the end will justify the means and that the success will outweigh the cost.  Given that this alternate timeline Kirk was given command of a ship in much less time than TOS’s Kirk and grew up without his father, it’s understandable that he’d be less mature or wise than Shatner’s rendition of the character.  However, it’s baffling that, after all of this, he managed to stay in command of the Enterprise during the events between Star Trek and Into Darkness.

Zachary Quinto’s Spock is excellent, in this reviewer’s humble opinion.  He nails the Vulcan demeanor and his delivery is mechanically organic.  At times I felt that his character lacks the human side that Spock Prime of TOS had with this Spock being almost too Vulcan at times, but that feeling is unfounded as Spock has some excellent dialogue that highlights his human nature and one incredibly powerful scene that brings forth the Spock I know and love.

The rest of the cast rounds out the experience nicely with Benedict Cumberbatch playing an excellent villain who is as brutal, powerful, and war-hungry as he is intelligent.  This isn’t just a villain who relies on brute strength, but cunning and an infallible strategy to ensure success.  Simon Pegg’s rendition of Scotty is also worthy of note as he fills the role perfectly.  This isn’t a surprise as I felt his performance was one of the best things of the 2009 film and it’s great to see him back aboard the Enterprise.

On its own, Star Trek: Into Darkness is a fantastic film.  It was everything I was hoping for from a sequel to the 2009 film.  It was, however, somewhat hollow.  The main emotional conflicts and the most rousing scenes are the ones that are modernized echoes of TOS.  For a film so heavily reliant on creating its own identity, it’s so heavily reliant on the premise of existing plots to succeed in the task it’s trying so hard to achieve.  It hurts the film, but not in such a way that you can’t sit back and enjoy the experience and love every second aboard the Enterprise.

The events from the first film, a Romulan (Nero) traveling back in time to kill James T. Kirk alters the course of the future and sets up a timeline drastically different from that of TOS.  While certain events from that film have had a huge impact on that fictional universe, a part of me was hoping that they would move this film franchise closer to merging with the original timeline, for some reason.  It’s apparent with Into Darkness that they’re content with straying far from making reparations to their fractured timeline while referencing the existing materials to keep the fans happy.  This isn’t a bad thing as it gives us fans some unexpected turns and ensures that the future isn’t predictable, but it’s still hard to not be protective of a property you’ve considered “yours” for years.  This modern take on the property has eschewed socio-political commentaries for high-adrenaline action featuring characters that fans are familiar with and non-fans can appreciate.  It’s nice to see the crew of the Enterprise back in action and the film is an absolute blast, but you can’t help but feel a little disappointed at times for the lack of traditional Trek feel.

Star Trek: Into Darkness:  4 out of 5