Carnival Row – A Review

Carnival Row is a series now available to stream on Amazon. It’s a fascinating concept that, for the most part, kept me totally enthralled.

The idea is that a major city known as the Burgue has taken in war refugees from ravaged lands that are home to such fanciful creatures as fairies, centaurs, and fauns. However, the humans in the Burgue don’t accept these creatures in need and will only tolerate them as servants, laborers, or prostitutes. Furthermore, they must know their place and live on Carnival Row, away from civilized society.

Sensing a real-world correlation?

Orlando Bloom plays a police investigator trying to solve a series of grisly murders. Cara Delevinge plays a fairy newly arrived in the Burgue. Their paths cross, and we soon learn that they have a complicated past with one another.

Carnival Row explores their mutual history, but it also ventures deeply into political intrigue, social justice, interpersonal complexities, and, at its heart, the mysterious murders.

The show looks beautiful. Each episode feels like a miniature movie, and the site of fauns and fairies mixed in with humans did not strike me as jarring at all. In fact, for the most part, the practical effects and make-up are seamless. There are moments of CGI that I would say look very good overall–much like you would see in a film. However, when the CGI is bad, it’s very bad. For example, I don’t think they ever really depicted the fairies in flight all that well.

Everything in the Burgue is grimy, time-worn, and appears to have existed for centuries. In other words, this world feels fully realized. Perhaps too realized, in fact. There are small, passing comments that makes the viewer understand that this world has so much more to offer than just what is being shown. This is brilliant in regards to guaranteeing the show’s longevity, but frustrating to those of us who want to know everything about the world this very instant.

For example, they have churches and effigies devoted to “The Martyr.” This is a figure who looks an awfully lot like Jesus Christ. However, instead of hanging from a cross, The Martyr is depicted as being hung by the neck with his hands bound. This religious icon is not explained at all. It’s just there to whet our appetite for more story.

As you can see, with Carnival Row, you are quite literally coming in right in the middle of things, and you can’t trust your own conception of reality to inform your interpretation of this world.

Shall we talk about the acting? Orlando Bloom is wonderful. Truthfully, I’m not sure I’ve ever liked him as much as I do in Carnival Row. His character is the strong, silent type, yet Bloom conveys quite a bit of emotion through his eyes. I found myself very much invested in his surprisingly complicated backstory.

Cara Delevinge, unfortunately, did not quite win me over so handily. Starring opposite Bloom, Delevinge plays her character rather flatly. I did not connect with her whatsoever. To be fair, I found her character underwritten. Her character is certainly strong and capable, but just not that interesting. We’ll see if that changes over time.

Thankfully, many of the supporting actors are fantastic. Tamzin Merchant’s initially unlikable Imogen is quite an evolution to behold. David Gyasi simmers with restraint yet steals every scene even as he has horns glued to his head.  Karla Crome’s charisma leaps off the screen what few scenes she’s in. Honestly, I could go on and on. These may not be famous names, but these are extremely talented actors.

Be warned, Carnival Row is  little bit of a slow burn. I particularly groaned at a bad special effect in the first ten minutes and almost turned it off, but it got better and better and better with each episode. In all seriousness, the final episode had me on the edge of my seat.

Interestingly enough, Carnival Row also seems to be saying something. Though it takes place in an gritty, alternate reality, I think you’ll find many of its themes both timely and resonant.

As you can probably tell, I recommend you give Carnival Row a try.  Let me know what you think of it.

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Titans: The Complete First Season – A Review

Have you heard that DC Comics started its own streaming service with original content? It’s true. Their debut show, Titans, has concluded its first season and is now available on DVD and BluRay. (Special thanks to the Normal Public Library for purchasing it after my request to do so.)

I have to tell you, I felt very excited to see this series. I had no idea what the quality of the story would be, the ability of the actors, or the caliber of the production due to the infancy of DC Universe.com. I’ve got good news. Generally speaking, I give Titans high marks for all three.

Before I explore these aspects, though, I want to make it clear that this version of Titans is not for children. Yes, it has Robin, Beast Boy, Raven, and Starfire, but these are not the iterations of the cartoon series. This is a violent depiction laden with profane language.

With that being said, though the series is very uneven, I enjoyed it. I say it’s uneven because sometimes it’s a horror show, sometimes it’s an action show, sometime’s it’s a science fiction show, and sometimes it’s a drama. It never quite figured out how to be all of those things at once.

However, the production value is very high. I couldn’t believe just how good everything looked. The only moment in the eleven shows that looked “fake” was whenever Beast Boy became a tiger. They tried their best with the CGI tiger, but it never quite looked right. Otherwise, it all looked great. Robin’s costume, Starfire’s powers, the sets, the locations, the stunt work–it all impressed.

I thought the overall story had some issues as well. For the most part, it totally engaged me. Unfortunately, near the end of the season, Raven’s father and mother become a focal point and the show lost a bit of steam there. Up until that point, though, I thought the show made a lot of really smart choices with how it slowly revealed details about each character. There are major differences between what we know about the Titans and what this show chooses to do with them, but their essence essentially remains true to their source material.

For me, the standout story line actually centered on Hawk and Dove. I found them to be the most capable actors with the most captivating arc. I also liked them the best, which is ironic because I’ve always found Hawk and Dove to be uninteresting during my forty years of comic book reading.

I also thought Anna Diop was incredibly charismatic. I won’t argue against the fact that they deviate from established Starfire lore quite a bit, but I feel they really made this character work perfectly for the show’s general tone. Another standout includes Curran Walters, who plays Jason Todd, the second Robin. Walters’ accurately captures Todd’s cockiness and charisma, his spirit and darkness. I loved it when Dick Grayson and Jason Todd shared the scene together, and I love that Titans was brave enough to go that deeply into the Batman canon.

There were two things that did not work for me at all, though. The first is the decision they made regarding Raven’s father. If you know the character at all, you understand that he is the demon Trigon. Trigon is a giant, red, muscular, multi-eyed monster. Titans took the easy way out with him, and it totally deflated the series’ ending as a result. Furthermore, though Batman’s shadow hung over the entire season, the final episode really made it all about Batman. I thought this was a serious misstep after having worked so hard to establish Dick Grayson as a fully realized character disconnected from Batman. Everyone and everything took a backseat to Batman in what should have been an episode that pulled out all the stops for the main players. We can’t be expected to take these characters seriously if the show itself would rather be focusing on Batman.

Nonetheless, I had a great time with Titans. It is extremely violent, bloody, and profane, but it’s also brave, bold, and stylish. I’ve already seen some teasers for season two and I’m very excited. It appears that Superboy, Aqualad, Ravager, and Jericho will be appearing as well. If Titans can simply settle on a consistent tone, it’s got everything it needs to be a hit.

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The Primary Reason I Love Once Upon a Time In Hollywood So Much (Warning: Major Spoilers)

I saw Once Upon a Time In Hollywood last Thursday night, and I loved it. In fact, I love it more today than I did last Thursday. Now, I love it for lots of different reasons. Brad Pitt is at his ultimate level of charm, Leonardo DiCaprio puts on perhaps his best performance ever, Margot Robbie makes Sharon Tate incredibly likable, and Quentin Tarantino delivers a magnificent story, script, and production. Really, I don’t see how it can get much better than Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.

But, even with all of that being said, none of those are the primary reason I love Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. The real reason I love the movie so much pretty much spoils the entire thing, so I’d like to offer a warning: If you want to see the movie and haven’t yet, please stop reading now. If there’s any chance you might see the movie … stop reading now. You want to be totally fresh for Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, trust me.

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The film goes to great lengths to intermittently depict Sharon Tate as an affable, kind, identifiable person with little snippets of her simply enjoying life in Hollywood. Tarantino also weaves Charles Manson’s cult in and out of the main story line. However, neither of these two things comprise the majority of the movie. Most of the film is about Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Rick Dalton, trying to work his way back to the top of Hollywood stardom.

As one would expect, though, Manson plays a role. At one point, Manson himself visits the home that Tate shares with Roman Polanski. It’s a harmless scene, yet it fills the viewers with dread because, while none of us know exactly what this film is even about, we all understand it will culminate with Tate’s grisly murder. Furthermore, DiCaprio’s character is neighbors with Tate and Polanski, which makes us believe he will somehow bear witness to the awful slaughter. Manson’s cult continues to contaminate the movie throughout as Brad Pitt’s character eventually befriends one of Manson’s followers. However, it’s not long until Booth realizes his new friend’s friends are up to no good and leaves her behind, but the threat they pose is clearly established.

In other words, the entire movie functions as something of a countdown. No matter what occurs, no matter how much the movie seems to be about Rick Dalton’s quest to renew his fame, we all know it’s really about the impending death of Sharon Tate.

But here’s what I failed to realize before seeing the movie. It’s not called Once Upon a Time In Hollywood because it’s a history lesson. It’s called Once Upon a Time In Hollywood because it’s a fairy tale. And what good is a fairy tale without a happy ending?

Tarantino is not known for happy endings, but Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is about as happy of an ending as you will get from the man.

In this fairy tale, or alternate universe, or revised history, or whatever you want to call it, Manson’s goons decide to kill Rick Dalton before they kill Sharon Tate. When they enter Dalton’s home, though, they encounter Cliff Booth. Cliff is about as tough as they come, and he literally beats them to death. I won’t go into too much detail, but trust me when I say it’s pretty gory.

Consequently, once the audience realizes that Cliff is going to win this battle, the scene, as violent as it is, becomes almost a celebration. The audience begins to understand that the Manson monsters will never make it to Sharon Tate’s home–Sharon will survive!

In this world we currently live in, where it seems like the bad guys are winning at every turn, it proves incredibly cathartic to watch the would-be killers suffer poetic justice.

The last shot of the film, a moment featuring a concerned, amenable Sharon Tate inviting Rick Dalton into her home, left me almost giddy. The movie ends implying that Cliff and Rick’s friendship will never end, Sharon Tate will go on to live a wonderful life, and Rick’s career might just get a jumpstart from Roman Polanski himself.

Even though the putrid odor of burned flesh probably still lingered in the air, in  a Tarantino fairy tale, this is the happiest of endings.

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Reza’s Edge Of Illusion: Branson, Baby! – Our 2019 Spring Break (Part 14)

When we researched our 2019 Spring Break trip to Branson, everything said Reza was a must.  I’ve never heard of the guy, so after exploring his website and reading a few reviews, I presented him as a possibility to the family.  My wife and kids really like magicians and illusionists, so we figured we’d give him a shot.

We paid him a visit on a weekday in the afternoon.  We could instantly tell that this would be a much different experience than Hamner’s Unbelievable Variety.  The theater seemed newer and there were far more people in the audience.

Reza’s warm-up act came out to get us fired up.  Do you like all the flame puns?  I’m using them because this guy swallowed fire.  He also told us to make a lot of noise–the more noise we made, the longer the show would go.  He said Reza loves a rocking audience.  Well, that got us going.

In fact, the beginning of this experience felt very much like a rock concert, which I think was the objective.

Reza soon appeared and he dazzled us from the start.  His illusions are unique, kinetic, and even felt a little bit dangerous.  He also took several moments to interact with the crowd by calling a few people up or taking questions.

Image seems very important to Reza.  Though he had a dry sense of humor, he was careful to maintain a “cool” persona.  He never got too excited, too loud, or too rushed.  In fact, after every illusion, he kept a blank, almost withdrawn expression upon his face.  After awhile, it got to be kind of funny to me.

Though his performance amazed us and we had a magnificent time watching him, I have to admit I was disappointed when the show ended right on time.  I felt like the audience showed him a lot of love, but apparently not enough to extend the act.

I also appreciated that he stood in the lobby afterward and signed autographs for every single person who wanted to wait in line.  He also allowed pictures on people’s personal cell phones.  (Yes, he also had a professional photographer if you wanted higher quality.)  My oldest, who was 10 at the time, was mesmerized by this man.  Unfortunately, she said he didn’t even make eye-contact with her, nor did he speak to her beyond a quick “hello.”  I realize Reza meets hundreds of people each week, but it would have meant a lot to her if she had gotten a warmer reception.  She still cherishes that autograph, though.

Reza’s Edge of Illusion is a really cool show that’s appropriate for all ages.  If you’re in Branson, I would consider him a must-see.  Enjoy!

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Are you in need of a new epic series? Try Dr. Nekros, a trilogy that I like to describe as Moonlighting meets The X-FilesKindle: https://amzn.to/2X3S7vO or NOOK: http://bit.ly/2JTFXm1

Looking For a Barber In Bloomington, Illinois? Try Bold & Barber

If you’re looking for a barber in the Bloomington-Normal area, I’d like to recommend Bold & Barber.  This new establishment is owned and operated by Mike Epley, a lifelong resident of the community.

Mike has cut my hair for many years while he worked at Shorty’s Barbershop in Uptown Normal.  He recently struck out on his own with Bold & Barber.

I’ve always found Mike to be a friendly, even-tempered person who is quick to laugh and easy to talk with.  He’s a family man, so we have that in common, but he’s also a sports fan and knows his movies and  TV.  In short, you’ll have no trouble finding a topic of conversation.

His new shop is very clean with super cool decor.  The front is made up almost entirely of windows, which allows ample natural light.  It’s also got high ceilings and plenty of room to move.  It’s the kind of place I wouldn’t mind hanging out!  Take a look at it by clicking HERE.

Furthermore, he takes online appointments through his Facebook page.  This may not seem like a big deal, but I find it incredibly convenient.  I don’t know why, but it’s always hard for me to find time to call.  Check out the Bold & Barber Facebook page HERE.

If you’re in need of a haircut, give Bold & Barber a try.  You can visit the Bold & Barber website by clicking this link: https://www.boldandbarber.com/

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Are you in need of a new epic series? Try Dr. Nekros, a trilogy that I like to describe as Moonlighting meets The X-FilesKindle: https://amzn.to/2X3S7vO or NOOK: http://bit.ly/2JTFXm1

 

World’s Largest Toy Museum: Branson, Baby! – Our 2019 Spring Break (Part 13)

I’ve had a love affair with toys my entire life.  I’m not exactly sure what they represent to me or why I’m still drawn to them, but I’m always game to check out the toy aisles with my kids!  In fact, before my children were born, I still collected certain toys that aligned with my interest in super heroes and literary characters.

When we were planning our spring break trip to Branson, I saw that they touted the world’s largest toy museum–that was literally the name of the facility!  I’m afraid it’s no exaggeration when I declared to my wife and children that this attraction would be a must-see for us.  My kids thought it sounded cool, my wife had no interest in it at all but decided to humor me, and so we put it on the calendar.

Let me tell you–this is truly the world’s largest toy museum!  It takes up no less than three separate structures.  We first entered a building that housed a great deal of automotive and transportation toys, as well as an expansive train set managed by a local club.  The people in this building were very friendly, especially the older gentleman curating the train set.  Of course, none of us were that into these kinds of exhibits, so we made our way to the next building after a quick jaunt.

The second building we visited housed what we would consider more traditional toys, but some of these toys dated back to the 1800s!  This building had an intricate BB gun collection, as well as many toys depicting the Old West such as the Lone Ranger and Zorro.  Furthermore, this building offered incredible displays featuring the original GI Joes, Barbie, Star Wars, Star Trek, and toy soldiers going back many, many decades.  One side of the building dedicated itself to checkers through the eras, which was frankly amazing.  There was also a section made to replicate actual rooms with toys in them from the 1950s.  These were donated by Paul Harvey and his family.  We talked with several people in this particular building, some of whom were the folks who drove across the country to procure these toys.  They were extremely kind and inviting.

We finally made our way to the last building.  This place housed more modern toys and also contained a gift shop.  I found my super hero toys in this area, so I obviously had a great time.  They also had Happy Meal toy displays which were pretty cool.  Other exhibits included sports toys, Masters of the Universe, Cabbage Patch Dolls, Transformers, and much, much more.  Interestingly enough, an area within this building is devoted to Harold Bell Wright, the author of The Shepard Of the Hills, which is set in the Branson area.

If you’re into toys at all, I highly recommend paying The World’s Largest Toy Museum a visit.  Not quite sure if it’s for you?  They have an extensive gallery for your viewing at this link: https://worldslargesttoymuseum.com/gallery/

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Are you in need of a new epic series? Try Dr. Nekros, a trilogy that I like to describe as Moonlighting meets The X-FilesKindle: https://amzn.to/2X3S7vO or NOOK: http://bit.ly/2JTFXm1

The Butterfly Palace & Rainforest Adventure: Branson, Baby! – Our 2019 Spring Break (Part 12)

While in Branson during Spring Break, we decided to check out The Butterfly Palace and Rainforest Adventure.  As is almost everything in Branson, it proved very easy to find.  When we first arrived, we entered the main doors which fed into a large circular room with a very high-ceiling.  Wide, gradual stairs lined this round room and led to the second floor.  This entrance area also doubled as a tastefully arranged gift shop.

We were immediately greeted warmly by the staff as we bought our entry tickets.  They also offered clear suggestions and instructions regarding the facility.

As we moved to the left, we found a room housing several lizards, turtles, fish, frogs, and even giant cockroaches.  They call this the Science Center and they will, at prescribed times, put on little presentations and allow visitors to hold the creatures.

We next made our way into the Emerald Forest Mirror Maze.  It is exactly what it sounds like and I highly recommend you experience it.  We had an absolute blast navigating our way through it.  Keep those hands out in front of you, though.  It’s very easy to walk right into a mirror!

After that we ascended the steps in order to enjoy the Banyan Tree Adventure.  This small room is set up to replicate the vines of the Banyan Tree.  They are actually green bungee cords, but they are so numerous and thick that it ended up being quite challenging.  Once my kids got the hang of it, though, they were able to fly through them.  This is a small room and will probably take you no more than a minute or two to traverse, but it’s fun.

Finally, we sought the main event — The Butterfly Aviary!  This is a USDA controlled area, so they take your visit very seriously.  You will go through one room and wait for the doors to shut before you access the aviary.  When you decide to leave the aviary, they will ask you to spin around so they can be sure no butterflies escape.  However, there is nothing to stress about.  They are so very friendly and they want you to interact with the butterflies.  In fact, they will offer you little sweet sticks to entice a visit from our winged friends.  My wife and oldest child loved this part of the Palace.  Because the butterflies will land on your head, your back, your shoulders, or anywhere on your body, my youngest wasn’t so cracked up about it.  She didn’t stay in the aviary very long.  We headed back out to the Banyan Tree Adventure.  Also, be aware that this room is rather on the warm side.  If you’re wearing a sweatshirt or jacket, you’ll want to take it off before entering.

Before leaving, we watched a short film about butterfly migration in the Rainforest Theater.  We learned a great deal from this short video, and I would recommend that you give it a watch.  They offer different shows at roughly twenty minute increments, so take a look at the placard to see what appeals to you the most.

If you have little ones, I would consider this a priority visit.  Though it’s not a large facility, it packs quite a punch.  There really is something for everyone at The Butterfly Palace & Rainforest Adventure.

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Are you in need of a new epic series? Try Dr. Nekros, a trilogy that I like to describe as Moonlighting meets The X-Files. Kindle: https://amzn.to/2X3S7vO or NOOK: http://bit.ly/2JTFXm1