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…

Review: Camp Cretaceous Season 3

Camp Cretaceous returned on May 21st with a 10-part third season, and I found it to be an improvement over the sophomore round in just about every way. While–spoiler alert–the kids more or less retain plot armor, they are pushed more than ever before, and their lives are threatened and the stakes are higher than ever.

We’re reunited with the Camp Fam as they fail yet another attempt to escape the island and literally return to the drawing board. They’ve fallen into a “comfortable” routine on the island. They know how to survive its prehistoric hazards. They’ve had enough time without the constant threat of death to form some cozy bonds and petty rivalries. But things soon take a turn for the worse, as the escaped hybrid only hinted at in the last season begins to wreak havoc on the neo-Mesozoic ecosystem. The kids suddenly find the park animals acting erratically and dangerously, and they’re hunted by an antisocial killing machine that doesn’t act in a predictable way. Added to the mix, we–and they–learn that six months have passed since the events of Jurassic World, and mercenary teams soon arrive with Dr. Wu to recover needed genetic materials and research for his continued hybridization projects. (We’re introduced to that last element in one of the best sequences in the season, which directly dovetails with the opening moments of Fallen Kingdom.) The kids are torn between the need to escape, the drive to stop Dr. Wu from furthering his amoral research, and the hope of saving the dinosaurs from re-extinction at the claws of the loose hybrid monster on the island.

All the kids have satisfying arcs this time around, without the frustrating tendency to regress at key dramatic moments that was so common in the earlier seasons. They have history together now, and the show built on and used that to further challenge the characters, rather than tonally resetting them at times to create convenient interrelationship tension. Once more, though, the highlight of the season for me was Ben, who matured so much over season two and now is really struggling with the idea of leaving the island and his beloved Bumpy behind. It was a fun way to continue pushing on this character. He didn’t need to overcome fear; he’d conquered that. He didn’t need to develop independence or survival skills; he was already forced to do so. He’s loyal and strong. His weakness now lies in his rashness, in sometimes being a little too independent, and being uncertain about his ability to give his new life up and return to normal.

The art and animation look better than ever. Once more, we get additional prehistoric reptiles added to the field: setting aside the hybrid freak, this season sees a return of the Dimorphodons from Fallen Kingdom, and new-to-the-franchise Monolophosaurus and Ouranosaurus also show up. The dinosaurs look great. There aren’t any conspicuously big, flat plains sequences with reused dinosaur assets just standing about. Their animation makes them seem physically present, although at this point the show seems to have leaned into the whole pseudo-claymation aesthetic. The human character models are about the same, but environmental effects, like lighting, seem improved, and the show definitely shows an attention to detail in tracking continuity in clothing changes, dirt and grime, and even simple things like Brooklynn’s roots growing out as time has passed.

The hybrid dinosaur looks like an impressively disturbing monstrous first stab at creating the sort of creatures that could become Indominus or Indoraptor. But this new “original” hybrid, Scorpios, is also somewhat revolting to look at. Its proportions, its movements, are all off. It’s an effective monster, and its presence pushed the plot forward, but I sure hope this is truly the last hybrid we see (you know, outside of the fact that all the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are hybrids that don’t look exactly like their real-life counterparts because, in-universe, they used DNA from sources like frogs to fill the gaps in the sequences).

There’s one dinosaur return I wasn’t expecting: that of Blue. This could have been heavy-handed, but she’s used sparingly, and it actually turned out to be a nice encounter in which this unique Velociraptor, established to have special characteristics of intelligence and empathy, is given a reason to develop some wary trust of humans. It’s not a necessary foundational step to her sparing Owen and his friends at the end of Fallen Kingdom, but it works as a little stepping stone on the path to that moment, with the ground having been laid, of course, by Owen himself as her trainer.

This season has bigger stakes, clearer theme and purpose, deeper character development, further improved art and animation, and direct continuity with the film universe that gives it a sense of greater relevance. It’s a high point for the show so far, and I hope that it continues for at least another season.


Quick season-end spoiler discussion here. They’re finally off the island, but it seems a certain predator might be hidden away aboard the ship. If there isn’t another season, that leaves some dire implications. After all, they have a flash drive showing Dr. Wu’s research, and they have every desire to see him face justice. And they know that he was back on the island in an attempt to continue his research. But he seems to have evaded any serious consequences and successfully escaped any scrutiny about ongoing research by the time of Fallen Kingdom.

On the other hand, it’s probably worth noting that the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Survival Guide reports that “Dr. Henry Wu was found guilty of bioethical misconduct and stripped of all his credentials” (p. 20). I’m not sure that this line in a tie-in book aimed at kids substantiates that he did face some sort of penalties; it’s also not clear to me exactly what specific crimes he was found guilty of, or by what sort of judicial system. Again, given the audience, and given the fact that the in-universe nature of the text is that of a guide quickly assembled on last-minute notice by Claire Dearing for her Dinosaur Protection Group team before their Lockwood Foundation-backed mission to Isla Nublar, it could just be an inaccurate turn of phrase that might refer to a finding of fault in some sort of civil proceeding, or perhaps a finding of ethical misconduct by a professional board. It would be satisfying if the kids’ efforts led to some of these suggested consequences.

Given that we last see the kids aboard a yacht in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a perhaps hungry mystery dinosaur trapped on board, there’s not a guarantee that they meet a happy end! Of course, even without another season, we could come up with alternatives to address this ambiguity, even if it turns out that Dr. Wu never did face serious consequences between films. Perhaps something happens to the disc but they’re okay. Perhaps, like in the original Jurassic Park novel, the Costa Rican government detains these survivors and attempts to cover things up to save further international embarrassment. Perhaps their findings aren’t enough to persuade any governing body to take action. Perhaps it’s something else entirely! I’m sure the show won’t kill the kids and isn’t considering that as a serious outcome, but it’s still enough for me to anxiously await the next season.

(For a bit of a reality check and some reassurance about the fates of these kids and their left-behind pet dinosaur, and actually for some interesting thoughts from Colin Trevorrow in general, read this from The Hollywood Reporter.)

Review: Amazing Dinoworld

Amazing Dinoworld is a tiny documentary miniseries released in 2019, currently available on a couple of the streaming platforms out there. I recently watched it and rather enjoyed it for its contemporary and impressively life-like depictions of dinosaurs.

Miniseries still manages to feel like an overstatement, as it’s just two episodes, each just under 50 minutes. It’s actually a little mystifying as to why it’s a two-parter instead of a single feature-length documentary film. It’s true that there’s a clear content split between the episodes, with the first focused on dinosaurs and the second on marine reptiles, but given that there are a couple of clear breaks in segments within each episode, it would have been quite easy to connect everything together.

Despite the brevity of the “season,” it covers an incredible amount of content. The first episode focuses on the impact of feathers on the continued evolution of dinosaurs and showcases a combination of scientific fact and speculation about what the adaptation of feathers might have allowed dinosaurs to do and become. Meanwhile, the second episode is largely about mosasaurs–their evolution, their ecology, and speculation about birthing and hunting strategies. A diverse, compelling, dynamic prehistoric world is depicted over the course of the two episodes.

In many ways, Amazing Dinoworld feels like a considerably updated spiritual successor to the Walking with Dinosaurs series, with really impressive reconstructions that combine live-action footage and computer-generated images. I thought it was great that Amazing Dinoworld‘s creators chose to focus mostly on lesser-known dinosaurs–although most would still be somewhat familiar to even the most casual fans of these creatures like myself. The first episode’s dinosaur protagonists are Deinocheirus in Mongolia and Troodon in the American arctic, with a supporting cast that includes Avimimus, Tarbosaurus, and Zanabazar for the former and Pachyrhinosaurus (with a speculatively thick and long keratinous horn over the flattened boss of the skull) and Nanuqsaurus for the latter. The second episode turns its attention to marine reptiles including Mosasaurus and Plesiosaurus; the large fish Xiphactinus; a pterosaur, Azhdarcho, and dinosaurs including Abelisaurus, a thoroughly modernized depiction of Spinosaurus, and two versions of the ever-popular Tyrannosaurus (one feathered like most of the dinosaur and pterosaur models in the show, one un-feathered for some reason).

There were some good interviews with paleontologists and depictions of fossil evidence, and there were a lot of fun speculative appearances and behaviors, but the show didn’t always make clear just how speculative some of it was. Furthermore, there was a generally oversimplified history of the developing theories about dinosaurs, their behaviors, and their evolution that made everything sound a bit newer in conception or less complicated than it actually was, but I suppose that’s the nature of a two-hour science documentary. Despite this, the overarching narration was helpful in describing what was happening on-screen and provided informative additional content, while the split between the life-like reconstructions of the prehistoric animals, interviews, and fossil depictions was fairly balanced.

The show was unfortunately still heavily male-dominated but was fairly international in its coverage of sites and scientists. However, it didn’t take long to recognize that a great deal of the scientists and filmmakers were Japanese. It appears that Amazing Dinoworld underwent a bit of an evolution of its own, as it was apparently originally released in 2018 as Dinosaur Superworld in Japan, if a couple of fan sites can be relied upon. That point is just a curiosity for me, not substantive; I don’t think I’ve seen a dinosaur documentary before that wasn’t produced by Americans or Brits.

Regardless of its origins, and in spite of its relative brevity, Amazing Dinoworld is easily one of the best documentaries about Mesozoic life that I’ve ever seen.