Review: Camp Cretaceous Season 4

The fourth season of Camp Cretaceous is the best one yet. The animation has continued to improve, and some of the action sequences, including an early one this season set in open waters (that also serves as an homage to Jaws), surpass anything that’s come before on the show and rival some of the scenes from the film. I really care about the characters, too; the campers have been through a lot, have had time to reveal their personalities to each other and the audience, have had time to grow, to develop, to be thoroughly traumatized. This season offers some big payoff on all that development, and every character has at least one interesting issue that guides their motivations and choices throughout every episode. It’s amazing that the show continues to maintain the diverse ensemble cast that it does, expanded further with some adult characters this season, without neglecting any individual characters’ stories.

The removal from Isla Nublar to a whole new island run by the villainous Mantah Corp. allows for a certain level of unpredictability to this season, even while the timeline still hasn’t caught up with the films. It’s a little whackier sci-fi, and the apparent motivation behind the bad guys to simply battle these expensive dinosaurs for the benefit of the rich felt a little flimsy to me, but there’s enough action and emotional character moments that I seldom had a reason to linger on the logistics of the operation too much. The setting also sets up a much larger world even pre-Fallen Kingdom that calls into question some of the absolute statements made in the Jurassic World films (while the larger world might not know, at least some of the Isla Sorna dinosaurs did not end up dead or departed to Jurassic World but were abducted to this new island; plus, Blue was the last of her pack but not the last Velociraptor out there). I think I can detect some plotlines that will end up continuing into Dominion, but frankly I’m uncertain, and I think after the movie comes out I’ll look back on this season (and perhaps the earlier seasons) with surprise about how things were set up.

This season also offers more dinosaurs to empathize with and simply see as animals, which was not at all what I expected. Even the Tyrannosaurus is given a surprisingly gentle moment with one of the human characters. This is a lovely change from the erratic behavior of the dinosaurs in reaction to the monstrous hybrid threat of the last season–and for that matter, we even have some cute baby dinosaur hybrids now that show that being a “hybrid” by itself doesn’t make an animal villainous.

I had a fun time binging this season’s 11 episodes. While still a fairly short season, this is the longest one for the series yet. And there just has to be another season coming with the cliffhanger ending offered! I can’t wait.

Finding a way to finish Alien: Isolation

I’ve written before about my mixed experience with Alien: Isolation, and my abandonment of the game after too many failures in the medbay level (only Mission 5 of 18!). That was, amazingly, over four years ago, which was even then almost three years after the game was originally released. My brief attempt to return to it quickly shriveled into nothing as well.

Yet enough time has passed that I’d let go of my frustration, and I was far more curious about experiencing the rest of the story. And after all, I get into a certain mood starting about a month before October anyway. Watching Alien and Aliens again, I wanted to see the story of Amanda Ripley in full, to understand how it connects and adds to those classic films.

So I started again. I prepared myself for a potentially grueling experience, went with the lowest difficulty of novice, and started the game again. And I found myself really enjoying the game! It was very tense, but that was appropriate for the content of the game. I appreciated the atmosphere. I held my breath in adrenaline-pumping games of cat and mouse. I cursed and gasped in fear. I marveled at the considerable attention to detail the designers invested in every prop, every nook and cranny of the space station and starships you encounter along the way. I abused tactics that wouldn’t work on higher difficulties, becoming over-reliant on hiding spaces like cupboards, lockers, and the leg room beneath desks and tables. I advanced slowly and steadily. I had a lot of scary fun. The alien became less intimidating, more of a mechanistic gameplay challenge than a horrific creature, but that was fine. I enjoyed teasing out elements of the story. I enjoyed how the fate of the Anesidora and its crew provided an explanation as to why W-Y never sent its colonists to track down the derelict ship before Ellen Ripley could verify its location decades later, even as they settled on the same world that it was located on. (I don’t need a lot of explanations in space horror, but that was an unusual gap that was filled well here.) And I cared about Amanda Ripley, Samuels, and Taylor.

Yet I didn’t finish the game, and I don’t think I will. I ran into what seems to be the other section besides medbay that frustrates a lot of players: the long hallway connecting cluttered rooms that you must move back and forth along to power a generator, go back to flip a switch, and then return to the generator once more when the power goes out. Suddenly the xenomorph was acting much smarter than it had at any other point in novice play, and it was angry. It was always willing to hop in the vents, to open every cupboard, to creep around the room insistently. I was low on flamethrower fuel and couldn’t just flame my way through–plus, my conservative, over-cautious playstyle always backfired as I waited out useful opportunities and was too nervous to inch around tables to keep Ripley separated and just out of sight from the alien. Even after I decided to take a few days’ break, which became over a week, I still felt sick to my stomach thinking of forcing myself through the same anxiety-inducing hallway creeping and repetitive macabre death sequences. But I also felt horrible about giving up entirely because I really wanted to see the story through, and rather than less than halfway into the game, I was on Mission 17, the second-to-last mission!

This is the last screenshot I took, in Mission 16. That accurately reflects the end of my experience being able to actually enjoy the game. The next mission was just too much for me.

Thankfully, there were some ways I could still experience the story. My first option was to watch IGN’s Alien: Isolation web series. Unfortunately, this brief, seven-part series was inferior in basically every way. For starters, it was incredibly rushed, with no sense of horror, let alone mild fright, throughout. The alien was over-showcased. The character beats were stripped of meaning. There was very little breathing room. Important plot points were rushed or skipped entirely. Two skipped sequences were especially annoying. First, a scene shows the Anesidora‘s crew discovering the egg room on the derelict freighter and being attacked before anyone went off to shut down the beacon, and while they mention that they want to make sure no one else can find the discovery before this happens, there’s nothing to suggest they’d waste time searching for and deactivating the beacon when the captain’s wife has just been victimized by a life-threatening parasite. Second, Ripley is shown to purge the reactors to wipe something out, leading to the release of the surviving aliens onto the rest of the colony, but the series doesn’t bother to show or explain that she discovered the alien hive nestled in the reactor, thus making her choices incomprehensible. Outside of plot, atmosphere, and pacing issues, the animation is crude, coupling together still-good-looking game cinematics with very awkward machinima segments with poorly chosen camera angles that really let you notice the characters’ untimed, floppy-mouthed animations during dialogue that otherwise would have been obscured by various elements of a first-person video game experience. Side-by-side, the difference in quality is exceptionally jarring. Then there are some changes that seem downright unfortunate: Amanda’s discovery of her mother’s final message to her is powerfully delivered by Sigourney Weaver in the game, but the series must have had difficulties licensing the use of the voice again or something, because the context of delivery is slightly changed and this time it’s a combination of warped digital voice and Amanda’s own flat recitation of the dialogue, stripping the sincerity and much of the emotion from the moment. That’s true of the larger project, though: this condensed series plays like reading a Wikipedia plot synopsis.

The second option proved better: finding a YouTube series of playthroughs. I found an impressive walkthrough with no player reactions, just gameplay footage, and watched the one-and-a-half videos that showed me the rest of the game that I hadn’t played. This was tense and sometimes terrifying, even when I wasn’t the one having to get Ripley out alive, even when I knew that the purpose of this video was demonstrating a successful run through the game. I can honestly say that this was an ideal way for someone like me, someone with a low tolerance for the game’s punishing difficulty coupled with its sense of dread, to appreciate the other things it really excels at, like story, mood, atmosphere and visual aesthetic, voice-acting and sound design, lighting and textures, and so on. Given that it looks like most of the missions can be beaten around 30 minutes, I would even recommend that someone who has not been able to beat the game, or who has otherwise avoided it because of concerns about being able to successfully play through the content, just go out and find a good walkthrough series to watch like a single-season television series. For anyone who otherwise would enjoy the setting of the game or who is a fan of the franchise, of sci-fi, or of space horror but who would struggle to play the game to completion because of skill/patience/stress-tolerance issues, a walkthrough series is the way to go and worthwhile.

Having now seen the conclusion of the game, not just via rushed cinematics but through the experience of the final two levels, I feel at peace with my experience with Alien: Isolation, and I’ll remember the story, setting, and characters fondly and without regret.

(For the record, all the screenshots included here are from my own playing of the game. Also, amazingly, even with an incomplete novice playthrough, I managed to earn 40 of 50 achievements. I’ll take my small victories!)

Review: The Many Saints of Newark

With The Many Saints of Newark, “the movie was not set up as a Tony Soprano origin story. It was a story about Dickie Moltisanti and it still is. It’s a gangster movie. It’s about gangsters in the late sixties, early seventies in New Jersey, both black and white,” David Chase told interviewer Alan Sepinwall with Rolling Stone in August. This provides a clear mission statement for the intended plot and themes of the film. While I think that goal is clear enough in the final product, it still is fundamentally an origin story, in part for Tony, but also in part for the entire Sopranos series.

In that same interview, Chase expressed some clear frustrations about the project: that he was not ultimately able to direct, that the movie was released immediately on HBO Max alongside the theatrical release, and that the movie was marketed as A Sopranos Story and as an origin story for Tony. But he also made clear that he pushed back on actual changes to the movie itself, and he said that he did not add more to Tony’s plot despite studio pressure and the remarkable ability of Michael Gandolfini to embody his late father’s appearance and mannerisms. So I think it’s safe to say that The Many Saints of Newark is more or less the movie that Chase as writer and one of the producers, cowriter Lawrence Konner, and director Alan Taylor set out to make.

All that said, it is not possible to separate this movie from The Sopranos. It’s not just a gangster movie. One of the four people I saw the movie with had not seen The Sopranos, and the surprise reveal at the end of the movie mostly left her bemused, not impressed and certainly not surprised. The characterizations in the film, with its colossal ensemble cast, largely rely on familiarity with the existing characters; while virtually all of the actors are allowed to bring their own takes to these well-known figures, there’s certainly a degree of impression baked into each portrayal of a younger version of a familiar character. That means that someone without knowledge of the show, or who maybe hasn’t watched it since it came out, will miss out on the foundation provided by the original portrayals of these characters, likely finding most of the performances to be too brief to provide more than superficial personalities. I’d also suspect it would be difficult to track the characters; I watched the show over the past year or so, and I still was uncertain about who some of Tony’s same-age friends, barely if ever mentioned by name, were. (Here I’m actually grateful that this was simultaneously released for home streaming, because I’m sure to watch again with subtitles on to pick up on more dialogue and see if some elusive character names are provided.)

The film also adds a tremendous amount to one’s understanding of the characters in The Sopranos. There’s plenty to unpack. Young Tony sees Dickie’s aging father bring home a beautiful Italian immigrant and beams up at her; it’s hard not to draw the connection to his hallucinatory Italian beauty decades later. Dickie and Tony have a relationship that mirrors, in many ways, Tony’s later mentorship of Dickie’s own son. A younger Livia looks somewhat similar to Carmela. The movie is an exploration of Tony’s boyhood psyche.

We see more clearly the forces at work in Tony’s life, pulling him many ways. While Livia’s borderline personality disorder is just as disruptive to her family’s lives as ever, it’s also made crystal-clear that Tony’s idealized vision of his father doesn’t match the thuggish and violent figure of his past. As a nice example of this, in a late-series episode of the show, Janice tells a drink-infused story about how Johnny once shot a gun through Livia’s hair when they were driving home from a dinner; Tony is quickly angered that Janice brings this up at all and denies that it ever happened. But we see this scene in the movie, and it’s truly horrifying, an abrupt switch from Livia’s constant complaining to the loud blast of the gun in the night and the brief moment when everyone in the car is sitting in shocked silence. That scene also provides an example of where the events depicted don’t quite line up with the story as told in the series; in fact, we even see some scenes from the series’ flashbacks that don’t quite happen exactly the same way, or events that don’t seem to match up with the suggested timeline of what happened in the show. It’s an interesting portrayal of the slipperiness of memory, the subjectivity of perspective. Even the movie itself shouldn’t be interpreted as the “canon” events of the Sopranos story, with its sparing use of surreal imagery and the frame narrative that is Christopher Moltisanti (voiced again by Michael Imperioli) telling the tale of his father from the grave.

It’s also not really about “black and white” gangsters in equal consideration, or about the Newark riots. At the core of the movie, this is a story about the relationship between young Tony and his “uncle” Dickie. There is a B plot involving the Newark riots, white flight, and anti-black racism from the police and the Italian-American community. That B plot has a lot of heady material but does not delve deep enough–I wonder if such an effort was even necessary at all in a movie about a particular Italian-American crime family, and I would argue that the result is largely a distraction from the main narrative. Despite providing a rival black mobster, Harold, (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) to follow as he breaks away from working for the Italian-Americans and launches his own numbers racket, we don’t truly see much from a black perspective. We see the riots, even up close, from a mostly outside perspective, often tinged with fear as the characters focus on the chaos and violence rather than the underlying racism and racial tensions that led to the riots, or we see them as the Italian-American mobsters use the riots as a smokescreen for their own illegal activities. Again, this would be fine if the movie were about the Italian-American criminals’ perspectives only, but it’s ostensibly about viewpoints from both sides of a racial and cultural divide.

As it is, the story is about Dickie, and we don’t really get enough time to understand Harold’s motivations or end goal. The Italian-American characters often have moments to talk to another character in moments of vulnerability, signaling their deeper emotions and concerns even if not stating them outright, and I do not recall Harold getting many such moments. It is a struggle to even sympathize with Harold, as he serves more as an antagonist stealing away from Dickie than an active agent in his own right. His turn to starting his own criminal empire is largely motivated by black empowerment performance art, leaving a spoken word session with the determination not to help his community but to get rich off his black neighbors through vice on his own terms. Certainly there was no need to make Harold more heroic, or smarter, than the Italian-American characters, but it was clear that his choice would lead to a lot of bloodshed and suffering for the people close to him, and it was unlikely that there would be any scenario where Harold would win big in a war against a much more powerful enemy. Additionally, in a moment that has very little setup in the film, we find out that he’s having an affair with Dickie’s own mistress, which seems more primed to reflect fears of interracial mixing or a slide away from the establishment of a white middle-class identity for Italian-Americans than anything that actually seems relevant to the characters’ experiences. In general, Italian-American racial attitudes and fears were provided ample screen time, while there was not really anything that felt like an authentic black perspective–although it’s worth noting that Leslie Odom Jr., the great actor that he is, found personal resonance in the role of Harold and attempted to bring a rich portrayal to what David Chase wrote.

It was not hard to remember that this was a movie created by older white men (making the recurrent use of the N-word by black characters a little cringeworthy, given who wrote the dialogue and made the choice to employ it). There are still plenty of stories to be told about protests, riots, injustice, and race relations then and now, but that story certainly wasn’t shared very coherently here. If anything, this subplot felt like a distraction from the core story, which very much was a Sopranos prequel. And there are stories to be told about the many lived experiences of black Americans, which can include tales of organized crime–in fact, the third-act appearance of Oberon Adjepong as real-life gangster Frank Lucas in a mostly cameo role is a reminder that there is already at least one good, complex portrait of a black crime lord in American Gangster.

As a Sopranos prequel, this movie excels. I’ve already talked about this, but it’s worth emphasizing that Many Saints adds new layers to the characters and events of the original series. Of course, if there were a single protagonist in the movie, it’s not anyone named Soprano, but rather Dickie Moltisanti, portrayed by Alessandro Nivola, who effortlessly swings between affably charming and murderously enraged. Dickie has a large influence in The Sopranos, despite being dead for decades by the start of the series. He’s representative of the good old days that are past. Tony’s explanation for Dickie’s death and the quest for vengeance he gives to Christopher are important late-stage moments in their fraying relationship. Finding out who Dickie was and what actually happened to him proves to be a worthy subject for an addition to the Sopranos narrative. He proves to be as tragic, gifted, and flawed a character as Tony ever was, sympathetic even as a criminal yet prone to horrific and inexcusable conduct when enraged. The return of his abusive father with a beautiful young Italian woman as his new stepmother sets off an Oedipal narrative that ends as wretchedly for Dickie as it did for Oedipus. There’s plenty of psychological subtext throughout the film, and Dickie’s conflicted feelings regarding his stepmother and his father–redirected toward guilt-assuaging visits to his father’s twin brother (with both brothers played by Ray Liotta) after the father’s death–are an essential part of his story.

I saw some critics complain that the movie does not offer a convincing turn to organized crime for Tony. But the movie ends with him only beginning to make that commitment, not through literal action but through an unspoken vow. A lot is left unsaid. A lot still must happen on Tony’s journey. But this is not a flaw of the film. There is enough to wink at Sopranos fans, but this movie is not, and never was, an origin story for Tony’s entrance into organized crime. Yeah, I’d watch a sequel with the cast assembled here reprising their roles as younger versions of iconic characters to actually depict that journey, but I also don’t need that movie. Yes, this is an origin story, but more than the specific path Tony took to becoming a mobster, this movie gives us even more insight into the roots of his later-life neuroses and provides a riveting tale of the tragic end of Dickie Moltisanti and the turbulent time that would be remembered by Tony and crew through rose-tinted glasses years later as the good old days.

What I’m Into: Fall 2021

It’s been a long time since I’ve had posts just talking about what I was into at a given moment. Not review, or analysis, just an overview of everything engaging me at the moment. Those posts were sort of aimless, but also sort of fun, because I’d just talk about whatever was absorbing me at the moment. I’ve had so much narrowed focus on big franchise things lately on the blog that I think one of these sorts of scattered, aimless, free-form posts is long overdue.

So, what am I into right now?

What I’m Reading

I’m reading quite a few things, hopping between them. I’m finally around to Michael Crichton’s posthumous Dragon Teeth, which so far has been an enjoyable Western adventure romp with the fairly unique focus on the Bone Wars and early field paleontology. Marsh and Cope are characterized quite colorfully but the rest of the cast, including the protagonist, are fairly bland. I’m simultaneously reading Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray, which does a great job portraying Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan at an especially fraught moment in their relationship before the events of the prequel trilogy, alongside a lot of cool Jedi Stuff. Then I’m reading Jon Dubin’s Social Security Disability Law and the American Labor Market; it’s been a while since I’ve tackled a truly academic book, and so I’m making slow progress through this dense text despite the rather slender physical packaging, but it’s very worthwhile, and I’m sure it would be a tremendous resource not just for disability law scholars but practitioners like me and perhaps even a general reader seeking to better understand the arbitrary and archaic way that the Social Security Administration attempts to account for an individual’s ability to perform other work and to determine how much of that work actually exists, and in what form, in the national economy.

I’ve also been churning through the published materials for the Alien RPG from Free League. This is just tremendous stuff. I’m not particularly interested in published adventures in general but the cinematic mode gameplay modules that have been published so far offer some really tense, vivid, horrific scenarios. And mechanically, there are a lot of ways to make the players feel insecure, underpowered, under-resourced, and facing threats they can’t possibly comprehend or defeat. (I’ve seen at least one reviewer suggest that agendas and effects like panic take the roleplaying out of the players’ hands, but players would still have to play out how things happen–this if anything just sets up more dramatic opportunities and encourages a feeling of loss of control at key moments that reflects the horror focus of the game.) Just as importantly, the RPG recognizes that the Alien franchise has been about a lot more than the alien from the very beginning, and it builds out enough complicated politics between interstellar governments and mega-corps to provide entertaining storytelling possibilities for their open-sandbox campaign mode. I hope to get some friends to play through at least one or two of the cinematic games in the near future. I think I’ll have more to say about all the materials when I’m through reading them, but of course a proper review of a game is rather incomplete if not based on play experience, so you’ll have to take it with a grain of salt unless I get a group together for this quicker than I think likely. In fact, there are a few different Alien/Aliens posts coming up, but I’m going to keep them to a single day, rather than another series spanning multiple weeks; Halloween seems appropriate.

What I’m Playing

I’ve been in a bit of a tabletop gaming mood lately. Way back in February, I wrote about a routine I had of playing Ring Fit Adventure, a single-player RPG, and then Star Wars: Squadrons with friends over the course of the week. All of that’s changed since then. Ring Fit Adventure play is now quite sporadic. The single-player video game of choice varies a lot as well. And the Squadrons play changed over to (virtual) tabletop roleplaying with those friends; one of them has always been an exceptional gamemaster and has been leading us through an Edge of the Empire campaign, and I haven’t had this much fun with a tabletop RPG in years. I’ve even led a couple of sessions with some side characters set within the same continuity. So between that and reading the Alien materials more recently, I’ve been really energized to try to get to more tabletop roleplaying. As usual, I’ll probably spend a lot more time thinking about settings and stories than actually playing any of these systems, but it’s generative creative energy either way. In addition to the aforementioned materials, I broke down and purchased the Cypher System Rulebook and its Predation supplement because the Terra Nova-meets-Dinotopia-meets-Xenozoic setting looks too damn cool.

I also just pledged on Kickstarter to back a physical printing of Matthew Gravelyn’s survival-adventure journaling game Clever Girl because I can’t get enough of dinosaurs in games and fiction. It’s not the only unlicensed work heavily inspired by Jurassic Park that I’ve recently purchased–about a month ago, I got Dinosaur World from Pandasaurus; it’s a delightful competitive game about building the best dinosaur park you can, producing dinosaurs amid other attractions and amenities and attempting to keep interest in your park maintained through constant expansion and greater risk (it’s also a sequel to their previous Dinosaur Island, which I haven’t played). My wife and I have only played Dinosaur World once so far, and it took a while for us both to get a feel for how the rounds flowed and everything that we should be keeping in mind during the different phases. Once we got that down, it was a lot of fun, and I’ve been itching to play again with a full four players (it’s for 2 to 4).

We technically attended Gen Con this year, but we were only there for part of a day (Sam really struggles with crowds and being in public now). Nonetheless, between Gen Con and online purchases, I’ve picked up quite a number of board games–nothing super-new but certainly games released over the last few years that I’ve been wanting to play. Aside from Nemesis, the ones I picked out this year have been mostly licensed stuff. I’ll write more if/when I get around to these games. I also might write about some of the older games we haven’t played in a while if we pull them out in the coming months–which I hope to be the case more and more as we’re trying to set aside some time for board games, both between the two of us and with a couple friends, on a recurrent basis. Hopefully, there will be no dramatic new developments in the pandemic that would require us to back off from that.

Normally, I would have brought up video games sooner, but I haven’t been playing as much lately. I’ve been intermittently playing Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. I’m trying to do three playthroughs of each game in the trilogy (on top of the playthroughs I had in the original releases of these games). I’m currently on the second playthrough of the second game with my only Renegade character, and even without being a pure Renegade, I don’t enjoy how much of a dick you are with this playstyle. But I’ve been just as likely to play a little bit of Jurassic World: Evolution (yes, I keep coming back to it after all) or The Sims 4. I’ve even given Alien: Isolation another try, finishing…most of it. I’ll have a post about that experience on Halloween, as well. The video game I’m most excited about isn’t even out for about another month: Jurassic World Evolution 2 looks like an improvement on the original in about every way–and at 280 hours recorded, I’ve now put more time into this game than any other in my Steam library.

What I’m watching

I re-watched “The Ninth Jedi” and “The Elder” from Star Wars: Visions this weekend. They’re so good. I’ve also been watching Letterkenny, Marvel’s What If…?, DC’s third season of Titans, and Only Murders in the Building. I’m only current on Only Murders, which is hilarious while simultaneously being surprisingly heartfelt and mysterious. Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Selena Gomez are all delivering fantastic performances every episode. Lastly, for television at least, I’ve started watching The Haunting of Bly Manor, just as most people are now talking about Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix series, Midnight Mass. Ah, I’m forever behind the times.

I don’t think I’ve watched very many new or new-to-me movies recently, or at least not since The Suicide Squad, which has already been nearly two months ago. Once more, it’s what’s in the near future that my attention is more focused on. I’ll be seeing The Many Saints of Newark, actually in a cinema, sometime this week, and I’ll also be going to Dune in theater later this month or early November. I’m sure I’ll be posting reactions to both when I can.


I’ve written before about trying to balance consumption of big franchises and existing IP with original creative works. Looking at my blog posts this year, and paying attention to what I’m currently engaging with, I am a little disappointed to realize how heavily my consumption has favored the former this year. But since 2020, life has been tumultuous for a lot of people, and that’s certainly been true for my house. Plus, work has remained quite busy for about a year now. So I guess it’s okay if I’m taking in more junk comfort entertainment. I’d also argue that even though these creative works most benefit large corporations and often regurgitate existing ideas, characters, plot structures, and so on, some of the current franchise productions are managing to mine new territory and do really interesting things. Still, it’s something worth being mindful of, and it might gradually lead to a rebalance of what I’m spending my time on.

I think I’d like to sign off by doing something a little differently and talk specifically about what I’m into creating instead of just consuming. Outside of this blog and the briefs I prepare for work, I haven’t written consistently in a long while now. But I do have sporadic bursts of creativity. I try to jot ideas down in a journal. Over the past few months, a few dreams have connected with other, older ideas and led to two full outlines for fantasy stories set in a shared universe. I think they’re each maybe novella length, at least, and I’d really like to devote some time to writing those stories in full. I’ve also been dabbling with fan fiction, though I haven’t completed any of those projects. Some of it’s been related to those Jurassic Park gap stories I mentioned in that series of posts on here. The fantasy stories are closer to my heart and so even if I finish them, I probably won’t post more than some excerpts here, but I think I very well might just post any finished fan fiction to this blog. Maybe writing this here, publicly, will get me to commit to completing some of these projects.

And that’s just about everything I’m into, for now.

Review – Star Wars: Visions

Star Wars: Visions is an incredible creative treasure trove and probably the single most-exciting and innovative addition to the franchise since…I can’t even say when, but certainly at least since I’ve been a fan. The easiest comparison point I can make isn’t even a work of fiction, exactly, but the West End Games release of the Star Wars roleplaying game, before my time as a fan. That opened the galaxy up wildly, inviting players to take on new roles and tell their own stories while providing a great deal of new lore and settings and story prompts. In the same way, Visions is refreshingly free from the intertangled core relationships between familiar characters that fill most of Star Wars content (brief appearances by Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt in a single episode of this anthology notwithstanding). But more than that, it feels free from the stranglehold of canon itself. You can choose to align the stories to the larger canon galaxy if you want, or imagine them in alternative universes, but they’re doing their own thing that’s not hung up on continuity or interconnected storytelling. It’s the freedom of creative energy from many creators also found in A Certain Point of View, but with a complete detachment from the films. It’s beautiful and inspiring.

Visions is, of course, an anthology series from different anime studios with very distinctive styles. For someone familiar with anime broadly and a fan of certain works, but lacking some of the cultural touchstones of a true fan (and I’d fall into this casual-fan category), you’ll surely recognize some influences, homages, and familiar styles. I’d be fascinated to know what a heavy anime fan made of the nine unique shorts, though. Just as excitingly, I think this is a great jumping-off point for someone with little to no familiarity with anime as a medium, as it showcases a wide range of art and animation styles, themes, and storytelling methods. Each episode feels quite unique.

It’s easy to binge all nine episodes, as I did; they’re all fairly short and intensely watchable. I can imagine easily re-watching many of these episodes again and again, as well. Every episode feels crafted by an auteur with a unique point of view and intent, and as a result, they’re all worth watching, although I certainly favored some over others. I expect that we’ll see a lot of officially licensed works, fan fiction, and analytical essays exploring the dimensions of each and every one of these episodes over time. I know I’d certainly like to see more, especially of my favorite stories of this batch, and basically every episode has some dangling plot threads that could be woven into follow-up chapters.

Speaking of favorites, there were a few knock-outs for me: “The Duel,” a story of a wandering Ronin who stumbles onto a village besieged by a group of bandits (lovingly rendered like an old black-and-white film with heavy nods to Akira Kurosawa, with splashes of color for lasers and lightsabers), from studio Kamikaze Douga; “The Ninth Jedi,” set in a distant future in which the Jedi have disappeared from the galaxy, where the daughter of a man who’s rediscovered the techniques behind crafting lightsabers must do her part to renew the Order, from Production I.G; and “The Elder,” showcasing a Master/Padawan team during the height of the Old Republic who stumble upon a powerful Dark Sider in the Outer Rim, from Trigger.

While those were the ones I most loved, virtually every episode had some charming character, intriguing idea, or gorgeous aesthetic. “Tatooine Rhapsody,” from Studio Colorido, managed to combine a band story, a gangster story, a Jedi in the Dark Times plot, and one really oddball punk Hutt. “The Village Bride,” from Kinema Citrus, offered another interesting alternative Force tradition and provided an understated redemption narrative for the Jedi exile protagonist that left a lot of intriguing mystery. “T0-B1,” from Science Saru, mixed a quirky, silly tone with some rather dark narrative and a classic animation style with themes that echoed Astro Boy, Mega Man, and Pinnochio–and it offers up a droid that may just be able to feel the Force, or at least who truly understands the concepts of the Force and finds a way of life more authentic to the Jedi way than the dreams of adventure he started off with. “Lop and Ochō,” from Geno Studio, has some truly gorgeous visuals and a strong emotional heart about complicated family dynamics, although the narrative itself is way too rushed and confused, deserving much more room to breathe and grow. “Akakiri,” from Science Saru, feels largely like an even more explicit remake of The Hidden Fortress than A New Hope, with a dash of Obi-Wan’s complicated history with Satine thrown in, up until its very dark twist ending, an ending that perhaps won’t feel so entirely surprising given how George Lucas tended to treat dreams and prophecy in his films–but this, too, is a whole lot of narrative that feels a tad rushed, or maybe ended too early, right when the story gets interesting. The only one I didn’t really like was “The Twins,” from studio Trigger just like “The Elder”; this story, rather than the brooding and tense investigation with a quietly dynamic mentor-student relationship at the core of “The Elder,” was exposition-heavy, flashy and over-the-top, heavy-handed with its ideas, and somewhat absurd in the excesses of its stylized action sequences, although my wife was a fan and could probably explain its charms quite well. There’s something for everyone in this set, and each story will appeal to someone, truly.

There’s a lot more that I could say about each episode. Like I said earlier, I expect there will be a lot of essays exploring elements of every episode, after all, and I think the episodes are worth that level of intense consideration. But I’ll leave this as a broad initial reaction: this was some incredible television, all the more remarkable because I’d felt rather indifferent about it until the opening scene of that very first episode. This is good Star Wars and good animation, well worth the viewing.

And yes, now I’m really stoked for Emma Mieko Candon’s Ronin, a novel that will expand on the world of “The Duel”; I’m sure we’ll see many more works that do similar for the other stories–or, at least, I really hope so.

Review: Sweet Tooth

I watched Sweet Tooth and loved it. This probably comes as no surprise, after my “Two Apocalypses” post–Sweet Tooth is a post-apocalyptic story with a lot of heart and warmth. (And, just as with the adaptation of Jupiter’s Legacy from Mark Millar’s work, the tone of the series appears to be more positive than that of the originating comic by Jeff Lemire, so that’s yet another comic series I probably won’t pick up despite loving the show.)

For those who don’t know, Sweet Tooth is set in a world that has fallen apart after the rise of two simultaneous (and potentially related) events: a highly infectious and lethal illness and the birth of human-animal hybrid babies. Both lack a clear cause or explanation. Years have passed since society came crumbling down, and the show follows a young deer-hybrid boy, Gus (Christian Convery), who lives alone in a national park with his father (Will Forte). Gus breaks one of his father’s rules: don’t leave the fence. This sets in motion a chain of events that results in his father’s death and sends Gus on a journey across states to attempt to locate his mother, escorted by his reluctant guardian, bounty hunter Tommy Jepperd (Nonso Anozie). As the show progresses, the scope broadens to include the stories of a retired and traumatized doctor, Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar), who tends to his wife, Rani (Aliza Vellani), a somewhat miraculous non-infectious survivor living with a chronic version of the Sick; Aimee (Dania Ramirez), a former therapist who sets up a preserve for hunted hybrid children with her young adopted pig-hybrid daughter Wendy (Naledi Murray); Bear (Stefania LaVie Owen), the teenage leader of an adolescent army of guerilla warriors fighting to free captured hybrids under assumed animal identities who spend their downtime in a sort of Neverland; and the sinister pro-human, anti-hybrid, dictatorial leader of the Last Men, General Abbot (Neil Sandilands), whose objectives and military forces gradually coalesce the various subplots together. All this is tied loosely together with a voice-over narrative provided by James Brolin, probably the only thing I didn’t like about the show, as he drawls out various clichés and uninteresting observations that appear intended to sound profound.

While all the acting is great, the charisma and chemistry of the eventual trio of protagonists–Gus, Jepperd, and Bear–really kept me invested. The casting director, Carmen Cuba, found a remarkable talent in Christian Convery, who manages to convey so much emotional complexity in his role as Gus, and on top of that casually manifests such deer-like body language (further aided with some amazingly expressive prosthetic deer ears). How much of that presentation is due to Convery’s natural abilities versus the directorial input of series directors Jim Mickle, Toa Fracer, and Robyn Grace? Impossible for me to know, but I was genuinely impressed by the talent here, especially the younger actors, given how hit-and-miss child actors can be (and to be fair, child actors haven’t had access to the same range of experiences to draw on yet, which makes Convery’s performance that much more impressive).

The series’ eight episodes provide plenty of drama, unfolding mystery, and action to keep just about any viewer engaged. Given the coming-of-age narrative for younger children, it’s clear that the show is aimed at a family audience, but it certainly has a lot of darker, more mature themes, and it certainly provides plenty to hook an adult viewer. In fitting with the family audience demographic, while violence and death are present in the show, it typically avoids very graphic depictions of violence, relying more on suggestion.

The ending is very much so a cliffhanger, with equal parts heartache and hope. I’ll be devastated if we don’t get a season two!

Final thoughts: Bobby, the little groundhog-hybrid portrayed with an absolutely charming puppet, is a true standout once he makes an appearance.

Review: Jupiter’s Legacy

Very much so connected with last week’s post, I typically find myself turned off by Mark Millar’s original comics, but the screen adaptations turn out enjoyable enough. Kick-Ass, for instance, remains brutal and violent in film but has more heart than the savage world portrayed in the original narrative. I found that I rather enjoyed the new television adaptation of Jupiter’s Legacy on Netflix, and while I have never read Millar’s original comic version, a casual review of plot summaries suggests that this would be yet another instance of favoring the adaptation over the original. I’ll set that aside, though.

What I really liked about Jupiter’s Legacy (the show) is that it provided a unique, consolidated history of superheroes in its own universe that all centered around family and legacy. Its tackling of two mysteries in two distinct time periods, one focusing on the origin of the superpowers for the founding members of the Union of Justice and the other on the contemporary mystery of how a notorious and now-quite-lethal supervillain has apparently been duplicated, provides for ongoing suspense even as it slowly fleshes out its lengthy history between 1929 and the present. Both of these narratives ultimately come together to highlight the tensions between the old ways of the classic heroes with their idealistic code and the demand for change by newer heroes in reaction to a more murderous direction taken by their supervillain foes.

That broad focus on fictional superhero history and philosophy used to fuel a fundamentally ethical conundrum about the use of lethal force is given considerably more human grounding by focusing on the families of the original team members. The children of the Utopian and Lady Liberty chafe under the code and their lives in the shadows of superhero legends; one is the catalyst of the entire debate about the code, while the other has alienated herself from her superpowered family and friends, instead choosing a life of high fashion and debauchery. Meanwhile, children of other founding members have their own legacies to cope with and decisions to make in the wake of recent events. There are a lot of moving parts, but this focus on familial relationships gives us a framework for personal investment.

I’m interested in a second season because I want to see where the big mystery in the contemporary timeline, with its season-ending twist reveal, leads, but also because I want to see what the original heroes were like as they operated throughout the mid-twentieth century. It would be interesting to see how they navigated around political entanglement during the wars and other crises of the times, how this setting deals with costumed superheroes during the Cold War, how other superpowered individuals emerged, and how people began to turn to supervillainy.

There are a few things, however, that do bother me about the show so far. First, while the cast is somewhat diverse, the primary protagonists are overwhelmingly white, issues of race have been handled unevenly in the 1930s setting so far, and a disproportionate number of people of color have been killed. Second, while a rather minor point, the greatly extended lifespans of the original Union go unremarked-upon, which isn’t a gamebreaker in and of itself, but it does make it difficult to understand why they waited so long in life to have children; they all seemed to have decided to have kids in their eighties or nineties, for some reason, and that’s more bizarre to me than simply having unnaturally lengthened lives. Third and finally, the Union is clearly analogous to the Justice League, despite key differences, and this invites comparison to DC’s Kingdom Come, which just reminds me what a tremendously better story that was. I’d rather see a Kingdom Come adaptation!

That said, I like Jupiter’s Legacy, and I’d happily take more of it. Even with what must now be dozens of superhero shows out there to stream, this offers something fresh.

Feathers and Parks!

I didn’t really intend another Jurassic Park-related post so soon, but some cool stuff has been revealed in the last week and I’m excited over it!

First up, we saw via Colin Trevorrow on Twitter that feathered dinosaurs are finally appearing in a Jurassic Park film! Literally decades overdue, but I’ll take it.

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Then, we got the news I’m actually most excited about: the announcement of Jurassic World Evolution 2! New biomes, more dinosaurs, and it looks like pterosaurs and the mosasaur will be included right out the gate! And that Chaos Theory mode reminds me of some of the Operation Genesis missions and has me itching for more information.

I can’t wait until I know more about what the Evolution sequel will be like. And yeah, it’ll be cool when Dominion finally comes out next year. And I have to imagine more Camp Cretaceous is just on the horizon as well. It’s a pretty great time to be a fan of this franchise…